Are You Sabotaging Your Mental Health? Here’s How to Stop

Sometimes, mental illness goes dormant, only to rear its ugly head again. If you’re experiencing a relapse and can’t figure out why, turn to these unexpected triggers to assess how they might be impacting your mental health.

priscilla-du-preez-kgZFViswqxg-unsplash.jpgDisclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Please discuss any mental health or other concerns with your doctor! If you are feeling suicidal, you are not alone. Call 1-800-273-TALK or text ‘HOME’ to 741-741 to talk to a trained volunteer about what you are experiencing.

Sometimes, mental illness tricks you into feeling better – so much better, in fact, that you forget it exists. But having anxiety or depression is more like having cancer than having a cold: it goes into remission, but it’s never really “cured.”

When anxiety rears its ugly head after months and months in remission, my first reaction is usually one of shock: where did this come from? And what have I been doing wrong?

Many times, the sources of anxiety or depression are obvious. A stressor emerges, such as a major exam or big move. Other times, however, we have to dig a little deeper to find the sources of our inner unrest.

If you’ve examined your life and still don’t know where to turn, the sources of your anxiety may be hidden in unexpected places. Here are five red flags you may not have noticed yet – and why you might not realize they’re sabotaging your mental health.

1. Caffeine

Pounding heart, shaking hands, problems sleeping….to anyone with anxiety, these symptoms may sound familiar – but I’m actually talking about the side effects of too much caffeine!

If your anxiety has felt out-of-control lately, your morning latte may be the culprit. Try tracking how many milligrams of caffeine you drink per day for a week. The FDA recommends a daily limit of 400mg – that’s about four cups of coffee, eight cups of black tea or one-and-a-half energy drinks.

If you’ve got anxiety, you might consider drinking even less. I recommend decreasing your caffeine intake by one beverage per day until you find your sweet spot – that is, the number of caffeinated beverages you can drink without experiencing the drug’s ill effects. For me, that’s 2-3 cups of coffee per day – but since everybody metabolizes caffeine differently, based on their age, weight and even their genes, it’s important to observe your own diet to find out what works best for you.

2. Processed Foods

Ever heard of a little thing called the gut-brain axis? In case you haven’t, you should know that the digestive tract produces up to 90% of the body’s serotonin. In other words, what you eat impacts how you feel – not just physically, but mentally, too.

Harvard Health Blog puts it best: “Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel.” Fresh, whole foods that are low in sugar and high in nutrients are like high-octane gas for your brain: they allow your mind to function optimally, minimizing daily wear-and-tear. In other words, a serving of birthday cake or too much cheese off the party platter won’t wreck your mental health – but eating like that all the time could.

Considering mental illnesses like depression impact our ability to prepare fresh, healthy foods for ourselves, eating too much takeout or too many prepared, frozen dishes may be a subtle sign of a downward spiral. Thankfully, you can rectify the damage by incorporating more whole foods into your diet – and repairing your healthy gut bacteria with probiotic and fermented foods. That way, your body’s serotonin factory can go back to operating like a well-oiled machine.

3. Automatic Thoughts

Some negative thoughts are obvious: “No one loves me.” “I don’t deserve this.” “Life isn’t worth living anymore.” Others, like this doggo, show up in disguise….

Image result for dog studying gif

Source: Giphy

Dog or hooman? And does bacon cause cancer? The world may never know. My point is, some negative thoughts are learned so deeply that they become virtually impossible to distinguish from ‘normal’ ones. In fact, you may not even realize that you’re having them – or that they’re hindering your progress toward achieving mental health.

Thankfully, just as you learned these automatic negative thoughts over time, you can also learn to recognize and challenge them. Depending on the severity of your anxiety, this may best be done with the guidance of a mental health professional. Mindful meditation could also help, by making you more aware of your thoughts and giving you a window to disrupt negative thought patterns before they can cause you distress.

4. Nutritional Deficiencies

When’s the last time you had your vitamin levels checked? If you’re anything like me, it might have been awhile. Though many health conditions can masquerade as anxiety and depression, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are one of the most easily treatable causes of new mental health complaints. (Among other chronic diseases, hypothyroidism, Lyme disease and even certain cancers have been linked to depression – so be sure to visit your doctor to rule out these medical conditions if you are experiencing new symptoms of a depressive episode.)

Low levels of vitamins B or D may cause symptoms of depression, such as fatigue or negative mood. As for minerals, iron, selenium and magnesium are most commonly responsible for low energy, depressed mood and even irritability. In many cases, the best treatment for a deficiency is a dietary supplement – but to be diagnosed and treated for such deficiencies, you must visit your primary care provider. He or she will probably conduct blood tests to assess the bioavailability of certain vitamins – and if a deficiency is discovered, prescribe a high-dose vitamin for you to take at home.

One word of caution: be careful not to fall for the causation vs. correlation trap. While depression can be a symptom of low vitamins or minerals, it can also be a cause. Many people with depression experience decreased appetite or low motivation to prepare healthy meals for themselves, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. So, if you find that addressing nutritional gaps doesn’t improve your depression, you may want to consult a mental health professional – ensuring you don’t fall into a vicious cycle of treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

5. Sleep

It’s common to experience sleep disruptions as a symptom of mental illness. For some, that means sleeping too much and finding it difficult to wake up in the morning. Others may describe a pattern of sleeplessness due to racing thoughts, or waking up unexpectedly in the middle of the night after experiencing a vivid nightmare.

Like dietary deficiencies, sleep disruptions can cause depression, and depression can cause sleep disruptions. Problems sleeping could even be due to medical illness. Your primary care doctor can tell you for sure what the best course of action is for your health – but as for steps you can take at home, effective sleep hygiene is crucial to maintaining good mental health.

So, what makes for hygienic sleep? Limiting daytime naps and stimulants such as caffeine, establishing consistent sleeping and waking hours and avoiding environmental triggers, such as a room that’s too hot or artificial light from cell phones, all contribute to healthy sleep patterns. While a good night’s sleep can’t fix all mental health problems, it certainly doesn’t hurt to arrive at your therapist’s office feeling clear-headed, alert and ready to take on your recovery, one baby step at a time.

Masturbation as Medicine: Your Hands-On Approach to Healing from Sexual Trauma

Hi, my name is Haley, and I am a woman who masturbates – and a survivor of sexual assault. Read to find out how masturbation can help you find sexual healing in the wake of trauma, and learn to love your body again.

My name is Haley, and I am a woman who masturbates. I am also a survivor of sexual assault.

What do those two things have in common? Firstly, they’re both things I feel the need to “confess” – as if I’m somehow dirtier for admitting them – mostly because I am not a man. (If I were, my sexual appetite would just be accepted as a fact of life.) But secondly, and more importantly, they’re both things that have informed the way I experience sex as an adult woman.

I have rarely spoken out about my sexual assault publicly. Many of my closest friends still don’t know. But now more than ever, talking about this experience feels relevant to what’s going on in the media – and in my emotional and political life as a young American woman and a survivor.

I’m a survivor, but I’ve also learned what I do and don’t like in bed, and how to speak up for myself sexually. Not that I think I could have prevented my assault simply by saying “no” – which I did. Multiple times, actually. Rather, it’s that I feel confident in bed. I feel like a sexual being again – a whole being, instead of a walking pair of boobs with a vagina. And I’m not afraid to admit that masturbation has played a big part in helping me heal from my sexual trauma.

Fortunately,  I never suffered flashbacks or other symptoms of PTSD as a result of my sexual trauma. However, I did lose sight of myself as an active participant in sex. Instead, I learned to see myself as a giver rather than a receiver of pleasure. I grew complacent, almost comfortable, with the idea that my body was there for men to use; to create an experience rather than have one; to give rather than to take. I also developed problems reaching orgasm, problems I now know resulted from the judgment and guilt I felt in the sexual relationship where I had been assaulted.

I never recognized the connection between masturbation and my healing process until very recently. Like many girls, when I first realized that I had been sexually assaulted (almost two years after the incident had actually taken place), I didn’t want to be touched. But slowly, I eased my way back into taking pleasure from sex in the way I felt most comfortable: alone.

I started having orgasms again – first from masturbating, then with a new, more patient partner. I explored my body, got in touch with my needs and wants and bought my newly-sexual self fun presents like lingerie and a Shibari magic wand. Finally, I started to see sex as something exciting that I could share with another person. Rather than something that happened to me, sex became something I did.

To put it bluntly, I wasn’t just “getting fucked” anymore. I was fucking. We were fucking. And it had been our choice to fuck. We had chosen each other, and we had both said “yes” explicitly and eagerly.

Using masturbation as an acclimation tool, I slowly took back control of the sexuality that my assailant had forcefully taken from me that one day in the basement of his parents’ house. Because of this experience, and all of the research I’ve read that confirms my theory, I firmly believe that masturbation is a critical element of the healing process from sexual trauma.

Here, I will share with you some of my findings about masturbation and healing from sexual trauma – and explain how you can start a mindful masturbation process (I know, I know – sounds weird, right?) to help you reclaim control of your sexuality.

As always, I am not a doctor, so please speak with your PCP or mental health provider if you have any specific medical questions about sexual trauma. You can also always contact RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 1-800-656-HOPE.

Sexual Symptoms After Assault

After experiencing a sexual assault, it is natural to experience some interruption to normal sexual function. In my case, I did not even realize I had been assaulted by my emotionally abusive partner until almost a year later – but as I began to learn more about sexual assault, I realized the warning signs had been present in my behavior following the assault all along.

For so long, I had no libido whatsoever. I enjoyed masturbating from time-to-time, but my sexual appetite – or sense of satisfaction – was never quite what it used to be. At the time, I blamed it on my antidepressants – but even after introducing Wellbutrin, an antidepressant used to treat SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction, I faced difficulties achieving orgasm, especially with a partner, and eventually began to avoid sex altogether. This caused even more problems with my sexually coercive partner, who used guilt to manipulate me into performing sexual acts I wasn’t really interested in to begin with.

After the relationship ended, my sexual desire snapped back like a rubber band. Though I still suffered from anorgasmia, my formerly-nonexistent sexual appetite became insatiable. I remember feeling confused, yet empowered. For so long, I believed I was broken because my partner couldn’t “finish” me, or because I wasn’t giving him enough sexually (or so he used to say). So, what happened? What had changed?

Once I learned about sexual coercion, it all started to make sense. At first, I had simply believed the relationship was to blame – we didn’t love each other the way we used to, so the sex wasn’t as good. Then I learned that the guilt-tripping, badgering and pouting my partner used as weapons to obtain sex were actually a form of assault and abuse. All of a sudden, I went from “sexually broken being” to “sexual assault survivor,” and was forced to reconcile with this new identity and what it meant for my sexuality.

That is my story, but I am only one of the 1 in 3 women who has experienced sexual trauma in her lifetime. Sexual trauma following an assault looks different for every survivor. If you have survived sexual assault, abuse or rape, here are some signs you may still be suffering from the scars of the events:

  • Avoiding sex. Just as I did when my partner would badger me, sexual assault survivors often avoid sex altogether as a means of coping with their trauma.
  • Viewing sex as an “obligation.” Healthy sex means both partners give enthusiastic consent and want to share in that experience with each other. However, that is often not how we see sex after an assault. Not only does our sexual functioning change, but our attitudes toward sex are affected, too.
  • Feeling anger, disgust or guilt with touch. Over a year later, the feeling of being “wet” still leaves me feeling guilty and “dirty.” These effects often persist for survivors of sexual assault.
  • Loss of sensation or arousal. In some survivors, libido may cease to exist – or, they may have a sex drive, but experience little to no sensation when touched by a partner. Sexual assault can leave you feeling “numb” and indifferent to sex.
  • Intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors. Some survivors use sexual acts or masturbation as a form of self-punishment following assault. Others may experience unwanted images or flashbacks to the assault.
  • Pain or difficulty reaching orgasm. Vaginismus – the painful contraction of the vaginal walls upon touch, which can make penetration near-impossible – is a common trauma response to rape. You may also experience erectile function, premature ejaculation or anorgasmia. Or, you may have vaginal dryness – which, take it from me: makes penetration feel about as sexy as sandpaper.

Why Touch Heals

The idea that you could heal from sexual trauma with sexual activity sounds, on its face, counter-intuitive. But while it’s true that you should ease yourself back into sex gradually, there are a couple reasons that distinguish masturbation as a form of healing after assault.

Masturbation makes sex about YOU again. During an assault, your abuser is inherently acting selfishly, with no regard for your health or well-being – let alone your sexual pleasure. By masturbating, you are able to reclaim your sexuality as a healthy and valid component of sex. Sex isn’t something to be taken from you; it’s something to be shared and enjoyed!

Masturbation puts you in the driver’s seat. One of the most frightening and frustrating parts of a sexual assault is the feeling that what happens to you, and your body, is out of your control. After a sexual assault, you may find it difficult to resign control to a partner in the bedroom. Masturbating allows you to be in control of your own body, so that the only touches you have to experience are ones that you want to and enjoy experiencing.

Masturbation allows you to safely restart your sex life. Following a sexual assault, partnered sex becomes complicated. Whether your partner is someone you’ve known for five hours or five years, you may find yourself triggered by partnered sex after the assault. Even the most understanding partner can get frustrated by this part of the healing process. By masturbating in the privacy and safety of your own home, you can start to build a healthy sex life without feeling guilty for stopping – or pressured to keep going – as many times as you need.

Finally, masturbation helps heal sexual dysfunction. Sexual dysfunction is a common response to sexual trauma. It includes any interruption to the progression from arousal to plateau to orgasm. For some victims, this may present as low libido or vaginal dryness; for others, this may look like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation or anorgasmia. Regardless, sex therapy – and directed masturbation as a component of that – is a proven treatment for sexual dysfunction in both men and women. (And guys: the myth that masturbating can cause ED is just that – a MYTH!)

How to Start Healing

Before I discuss what worked for me, and how you can begin a mindful masturbation process to begin healing from sexual assault, I’d like to devote a few sentences (which is still not nearly enough) to the importance of therapy and the role sex therapists can play in healing from sexual trauma:

Therapy is an important component of the emotional healing process following a sexual assault. It’s imperative that survivors feel like they have someone they can turn to whenever they need to talk about what happened, or reconcile with their new identity as a survivor, or navigate their altered relationship with sex and sexual partners.

Ideally, this person is a professional sex therapist (though it may also be a friend, family member, life coach, counselor, professor, minister – you name it). However, because the majority of therapists specializing in “sexual trauma” primarily treat victims of child abuse, and the majority of “sex therapists” work mostly with couples struggling with sexual difficulties, I recommend finding a sex therapist who specifically mentions working with survivors of sexual violence, sexual assault or rape in their professional experience.

I also think it is incredibly important to find a sex therapist who views sex openly and non-judgmentally, but also someone who comes from a similar walk of life and will share the same attitudes and beliefs regarding sexuality. For example, if you are a trans person who has experienced sexual violence, you will probably want to find a counselor who specializes in treating the LGBTQ+ population – or, if you are a devout Catholic (or Jew or Buddhist or whatever-ist), you may want to seek a counselor whose practice is informed by your faith.

Because sexuality is such a sensitive subject to broach, finding a counselor who speaks openly about sex, encourages you to do the same and does so in a language you understand can be life-affirming for a survivor of sexual violence. That being said, you can also take steps to heal yourself from sexual assault outside the therapist’s office – and that can start with a mindful masturbation practice you begin at home.

As a survivor of sexual assault, here is my advice for masturbating following a sexual assault – as well as some juicy bonus tips for how you can experience greater pleasure in the process!

  • Begin with non-sexual activities. Lighting a candle. Soaking in a hot bubble bath. Rubbing a vanilla-scented body lotion into your parched skin. All these activities, to me, read “sensual” rather than “sexual.” These activities allow you to show yourself and your body some love, before you are ready to start engaging in sexual touch.
  • Follow with non-sexual touch. The feeling of a hot shower running along your bare skin, or a gentle massage from your partner after a long day at work, can be just as powerful in relearning to love your body as sexual touch.
  • Give yourself time. The last thing you want to do when healing from sexual assault is “rub one out.” Allow yourself at least an hour to breathe, take breaks (if necessary) and spend this time focusing on you.
  • Avoid watching porn. Porn can be a healthy way of exploring sexuality for the average person – but when you’re a survivor, so much porn depicts sexuality in an unhealthy, even violent way that can trigger unpleasant thoughts and memories of the abuse. Rather than watching porn, close your eyes and focus on your breathing and the sensations going through your body. This simple act of awareness is what sets “mindful masturbation” apart from simply masturbating.
  • Try tantric masturbation. Whether or not you buy them, you’ve probably heard of tantric sex techniques for growing closer with a partner – but did you know you can practice tantra by yourself, too? Because of tantric masturbation’s focus on loving-kindness and self-exploration, the mindfulness techniques used in tantric masturbation make it the perfect healing art for survivors. Check out this article from Refinery29 for the full breakdown.

 

Survivors, what has helped you recover from sexual trauma and learn to love sex again? Let us know in the comments below!