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Life Hacking My Mental Illness

You may have seen the tumblr post that inspired this blog. The poster (spreezpz) makes the statement “therapists are just common sense filters.” They go on to describe an interaction in which their therapist helped them realize that they could eat the components of a meal without combining them in the traditional way if they didn’t have the energy.

There are honestly some days in my life where these types of mental illness “life hacks” are responsible for getting me through to the next day. Whether it’s keeping face cleaning wipes next to my bed for when I can’t make myself go wash my face, keeping protein bars in the house for when I know I have to eat something but can’t bare the thought of standing at the stove to make a meal, or running myself a bath because standing in the shower sounds like too much work, these are all things I consider to be hacking my mental illness.

I am, and have been for a while, a big fan of the phrase “normal is just a setting on a washing machine.” I think I saw it on a magnet in a gift shop once when I was young, and like so many other weird things, it stuck with me. In this particular case I imagine that having struggled with mental illness all my life, whether my own, or my mother’s, or both, this resonated with me because it did something to destigmatize my daily life. The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve grown to understand the damage that can be done by having “normal” as a goal, either personally, or imposed upon you by society, friends, family, or otherwise. Any time I think of normal, all I’m REALLY thinking of is all of the ways I’m failing at being normal.

When thinking conceptually about any “life hack” mental illness related or not, it’s usually just another equally valid but less “normal” or conventional way to accomplish a task. But when looking at mental health life hacks I have this thought of “I guess that’s as good as it’s going to get today” as opposed to being impressed, or proud, or surprised by the ingenuity. In reality any time I battle my mental illness, and come out on top, even if it’s just barely, even if it’s “only” a face cleaning wipe when it was supposed to be a full skin care routine, it’s still a step up from not doing anything.

I’m particularly prone to all or nothing thinking. There is ultimate success or there is utter failure. This is one of the criteria that tipped my psychiatrist off to my Borderline Personality Disorder, but that’s a topic for another blog. For much of my life I’ve had an extremely difficult time being able to differentiate between a bad experience and a bad day; a failed task and a failed day; not perfect and utter failure. My best mental illness life hack is when I can convince my overwhelmingly dichotomous brain that life and success exist in the grey between black and white, between failure and perfection. Once I’m open to that I can acknowledge that any of the other hacks I’ve made available to myself are better than giving up.

In my undergraduate psychology program we learned that the “secret ratio” to a happy relationship is 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative one. This ratio of 5:1 is partially because of how heavily the human mind weighs negative experiences in comparison to positive ones. When I hack my thinking to allow myself to consider small victories to be victories as opposed to just not complete success, I'm adding to my plus column and doing so by bringing something over from the minus column, even if my brain is feeling dichotomous and that item is being dragged kicking and screaming. Thanks intrusive thoughts…

Keep in mind that not every “lifehack” you come across will work for you in particular. Some may not be what you need, geared toward your symptoms or experience, or you may even see some (I’m looking at you “if you went outside more you wouldn’t need medication”) that are just people who don’t understand and have never experienced mental illness giving their two cents. Keep trying, find what works for you, pull from all different sources. That’s why it’s so important to share these ideas among ourselves, and do what we can to build a community. That being said I'll leave this off with a list of some of my mental health life hacks, and coping techniques. Add yours below in the comments. One of the best ways to destigmatize mental health is to keep talking about it, so let's talk about it.


  • I keep a stash of food options in the house of varying levels of needed preparation. Protein bar, easy mac, boxed mac and cheese, etc.

  • I have facial cleansing wipes next to my bedside table in case I need to remove makeup but washing my face feels hard

  • I have paper plates to use when the idea of dishes feels impossible

  • I keep dry shampoo in the house for days without showers

  • I keep a little stick of deodorant in my purse in case I forget deodorant in the morning when I force myself out the door

  • I carry my mascara and eyeliner, as well as a couple shades of lipstick in case I feel like makeup is hard in the morning, but find myself wishing I’d done it late because I want to look pretty

  • I learned how to do a “cinnamon roll bun” with my hair for when brushing it feels impossible and/or I just don’t have the energy to “do” my hair

  • I learned how to put my hair up with a pen or any other smooth sticklike object for those times when having my hair on the back of my neck is making me anxious and I can’t find a hair tie

  • When I feel like all I can focus on is negativity, I do some gratitude journaling and force myself to think of good things that have happened, even if they’re small and seemed insignificant

  • When I feel like my mind is consumed with a thought, or a problem and it’s impacting my day, I acknowledge it then visualize putting it in a box and on a shelf to process later, or I write it down to come back to

  • I write lists all the time. It feels great to check items off, and reduces my anxiety about forgetting things. At work I keep a word document open that I brain dump into CONSTANTLY. Any time I'm given a new task or piece of info, it goes there until it can get where it needs to be

  • When I find myself only imagining the worst case scenario, I try to make myself think of other outcomes too, ways that things could go right

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