In his December 2020 column, “The Hidden Fourth Wave of the Pandemic,” New York Times Columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote about the stress impacts of COVID-19.

“America hasn’t begun to face this year’s mental health crisis,” Manjoo wrote.

I believe he’s right and by the time you read this article, sadly, thousands if not millions more people will be in crisis. For those experiencing mental challenges—and who isn’t at this point—I want to offer some of what I’ve learned.

The tactics I advocate here have helped me save my life. But they can also help you defend from the constant barrage of attacks on our mental wellbeing even if you don’t suffer from something like Bipolar II.

Pair up: Grab a Brain Buddy

Life is tough in a good year, right? What does that make this year?! It makes it critical that we have a strong defense plan in place. That starts with teaming up. Identify a “Brain Buddy.” This is someone you trust fully and loves you no matter what. Contract with your Brain Buddy that when you are in crisis you will text them “Code Red.” This means that they’ll call you immediately (and visa versa).

With your Brain Buddy, create an affirmation for yourself that you will repeat on a regular basis. The affirmation is stated in the first person, present tense, and with feeling. For example, “I am safe, free, and loved.” Or “I am loving, strong and innocent.” You get the point. The important thing is that the affirmation rings true for you and gives you a sense of calm and joy.

My Five Point Defense Plan for Mental Health Challenges

From a panic attack to the long, slog days of a deep depression, to the truly crisis state that someone with a severe mental health diagnosis may encounter, we need a defense plan. While these are techniques I learned in severe crisis, I encourage you to learn them and apply them to whatever your situation may be.

Step 1:

Notice what’s happening in your body/emotions and give it a name that you state out loud. For example, “Self-judgement is arising.” “Comparing-mind is arising.” “Fear is arising.” The key point here is that by stating the uncomfortable feeling as “arising” we separate it from ourselves and see it for what it is, a temporary state of mind. It does not own or define us. This three-word formula, “(negative emotion or sensation) is arising” works because it is simple and accessible in a moment of crisis. (Shout out to MBCT, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy out of UMass Worcester for this approach. You can learn more here.)

Step 2:

When you state, “Fear (or other) is arising” that’s your trigger to text your Brain Buddy, “Code Red.”

Step 3:

Brain Buddy calls you and states your affirmation with you out loud, slowly, several times. This calms your nervous system and lets you know, in the moment that you are not alone.

Step 4:

Make a plan with your Brain Buddy for immediate next steps to get through the crisis.

Step 5:

Exhale and celebrate yourself for implementing the triage plan.

About that last step, celebration. Yes, celebrating you, the one with the unique brain pattern. That’s a counter-cultural re-frame, isn’t it? Because society still errs on the side of condemning those of us with mental health challenges as less than worthy. Note I am very intentional about my word choice here. You are not your “mental illness.” In other words, I don’t want you to put an equal sign between you and your diagnosis. You do have a mental health challenge to work with. It’s OK, you can learn to thrive with it. I want you to make the shift from being ashamed of yourself because of your brain to being proud of what a badass survivor and thriver you are. 

Kick off the cloak of diminishment and get out there and dance.

Find more resources on my resources page here.