Prepping your Patronus

For the few, unfortunate souls who are not familiar with Harry Potter, Dementors are creatures which “… drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them … get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you … you'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.” It comes as little surprise to me to learn that J.K. Rowling created Dementors based upon her experiences with clinical depression.
A Dementor as seen at Warner Bros Studios. Sara de Prado (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Like depression, Dementors can be repelled. It takes a lot of skill, but a defense (called a Patronus) can be conjured. It is “a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon -— hope, happiness, the desire to survive — but  it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the  Dementors can't hurt it.” What does this mean for mere Muggles (non-magic folk) like us? We have no wands (so unfortunate) and although we may attend classes in buildings that resemble Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, we sadly did not get our letters at age 11. But as surely as Dementors were created from the memories of depression, Patronuses have a real “Muggle” element too. After all, we cannot feel hopeless when we arm ourselves with lasting happy memories and joy. But happy memories and joy can be hard to come by sometimes: mid-terms can see to that. And if your mid-term stress and hopelessness makes you feel like you may never pass an exam again, or that you aren’t “enough” in some way and doesn’t leave when mid-term season is over, they can start to appear invisible. What is a student to do? Only you know what brings you joy, but I can offer you the things that may make these happy memories easier to find; maybe some of my suggestions will allow your mind to clear enough for you to recognize them for what they are. All of the Community Crew will be writing about Mental Wellness Month this week, and we as a collective have many experiences. But we’re not you, and we know that not everything that helps us will help you in every circumstance. However, we hope some of our advice will be of benefit. All of that said, here are the tools I use to “prep my Patronus”, or remind myself of the joy that is present every day for the experiencing.

Reach out

This is where I got into the most trouble in my experiences with anxiety and depression. I reached out to Counselling And Psychological Services (CAPS), but not to my registrar, family or many friends. I got some therapy and medication, but nothing that was getting to the bottom of my issues. It took four different therapists and a two-year break from U of T to get me to a place where I could return here, medication-free. Opening up to those closest to me is something I continue to work on, but it is not nearly the struggle it once was. I can’t encourage this enough: you need to reach out. Whether your family is 15 minutes or 15 hours away, they care about you and want to help. Your friends will want to help you too, and it’s best to keep them in the loop as well. Your College Registrar can direct you to other campus resources, and can help you navigate the system should your health get you into academic trouble. If you feel you need help talking to any of these groups about your challenges, discuss this with any one of the following on-campus options for a support network. For supports, there are several options. CAPS takes students as patients throughout the year: you just need to call them or pay them a visit in the Koffler Student Services Centre and they’ll set up an in-person or over-the-phone screening interview to see where you need help. Then they’ll match you with an appropriate professional: a psychiatrist or psychologist for one-on-one therapy on campus, or they’ll recommend other options. If you can’t get into CAPS, or prefer a virtual experience rather than a face-to-face chat, Good2Talk (for over-the-phone help), or Counseline (for online or over-the-phone support) are available. For a less formal group discussion facilitated by students, consider Peers are Here. As students, we are very lucky in that we have a much easier time accessing support than the general public. Wait times are weeks rather than months. CAPS also has a coping skills group session for students on their waiting list, which is a step in the right direction to get as many students helped as possible. If you are prescribed medication, your UTSU health plan will likely cover its costs. If you’re apprehensive about taking medication, discuss this with the psychiatrist who prescribed it: it’s essential you’re on the same page as often as possible. Note that medication is not a solution unto itself (you will have additional supports to deal with root causes of your problems), but it can be a good stepping stone to allow you to see the rationality and possibility behind those treatment options. As I said earlier, family and friends are essential resources, too. You don’t want the anxiety of keeping things from them adding to your already burdened brain. They don’t have to become therapists themselves though, if you don’t feel comfortable telling them every gory detail of your emotional state. However, having someone there when you need a tea break, a laugh, a hug or encouragement will never go unappreciated. Whether you’re facing a major emotional battle or not, maintaining contact with the outside world is good for anyone, as I discovered in last week's post. It serves as “maintenance” for mental wellness, as do all of the following suggestions for me.

Alternative Therapies

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) take explanation beyond the purview of this post, but I’d encourage you to look them up. CBT is a clinically proven method to take extreme thoughts like “I will fail everything” and neutralize them to “I have lots of work to do, but I’ve done well enough so far so will likely pass with C’s at the very least”. It’s a popular tool for psychiatrists. EFT is not so clinically proven (and can appear really wacky if you’ve never seen it before), but works for me. I don’t believe it can cure diseases as it’s alleged, but I do know it works for pain, anxiety, panic, procrastination, and creating motivation. Mantras (a certain phrase one can repeat to oneself for encouragement) are handy. Four-part breathing and progressive muscle relaxation can be almost miraculously good at slowing one’s pulse (and anxiety along with it) and relaxing one’s body under high pressure. Get Enough Sleep This is the most over-looked coping mechanism available to students. It’s the one thing we need most but the first thing to go when times get busy. It gives our bodies the rest we need, and helps convert anything we’ve studied into long-term memory. Just ask anyone who has done an all-nighter: it might get material into their brain for a morning mid-term, but I can almost guarantee that knowledge is gone by the afternoon. Getting enough sleep takes planning of one’s day and one’s study schedule: make sure you see someone at the Academic Success Center if this is an area you struggle with.

Get Some Exercise

When you feel like crap there is little motivation to do anything. But moving is essential for good health: even jumping jacks or running on the spot in your room (or public study space, no one will judge) will do the trick. Take a walk with a friend. Find a gym buddy. Drop in or sign up for a Hart House fitness class or a class at the Athletic Centre and take something new. Your possibilities are endless.

Eat Well

We’ve all heard the various adages and good advice about eating all the right things: fruit and vegetables, protein, fiber, and on and on. But why then must it be so HARD? My head knows that an apple and almonds will fill me up better than a chocolate chip cookie or a muffin, but my taste buds don’t see reason. The reality is though that poor physical health and mental health go hand in hand: you feel good because you eat well; you eat well because you feel good. You eat badly because you feel badly and your brain says that fried foods and refined sugars will make you feel happy. They might for a time, until they don’t and you feel sad and sluggish again. Treats are great, don’t get me wrong, but daily doses of unhealthy foods won’t do you any good.

Make Music

Usually this means singing, but playing the piano or violin (if available) can help. I can’t explain why this works, but it changes something in me: I can go to a choir rehearsal completely stressed out and doubting the wisdom of taking two hours away from my study time, and can leave feeling ready to tackle my work. In the absence of formal rehearsing, singing with one’s headphones on is a good standby. As is air drumming to Paul Simon’s The Obvious Child or similar, or air-violin/air-conducting to something like the Third Movement of the Summer concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Listen to Music

Whether it’s Drake, Alison Hinds, Bedouin Soundclash, Adele, classic U2, or a recording of a Hart House Chorus concert of which I was a part, there is a song or an artist for any given mood. Whether I need inspiration to be more motivated and ambitious, am feeling reflective, or am downright sad, music is where I turn. It allows me to feel something visceral for a while, until I can work it out in my head or reach out to others for help in doing so.

In conclusion

I use all of these strategies to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the situation in which I find myself. Not all work in all circumstances. I hope at least one of them will help you. Until next time, EXPECTO PATRONUM!

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