ELI 5: How to not freak out this week.
April 22, 2022 4:53 AM   Subscribe

I thought I'd be original, so I've decided to become depressed. Can you help me get through just this next week, until I can talk to a counselor?

I get panicky at the idea of doing anything but watching reruns. But. I have foster pets (dogs and cats) at the moment, enough for a good five to six hours of work every day. It's a bit pathetic, but right now, that is too much for me. I have no-one to help me with the work, but I do have people who are sympathetic and would hug me if I asked. However, asking feels scary. I know I'm fortunate to even have an appointment with a counselor. I know the week will pass quickly.

Still, I'm close to tears at the idea of feeding or walking any of the animals. They are not in danger (I would never hurt or neglect them), but I am an animal too, and I'm really not doing well. I have panic spells daily and crying spells every three hours or so. Sleep is difficult. Feeding myself is extremely difficult, healthy food seems impossible. Can you help me come up with some ideas to gently take care of myself? Is there anything I can buy that will help me, like maybe a sleep mask or whatever? I hope this makes sense, I feel really out of it.
posted by toucan to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If sleep is difficult, try just lying down and listening to something (music, podcast, audiobook) with your eyes closed (or at least not looking at a screen). It's not sleep but still can be pretty restorative.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:14 AM on April 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I'm depressed, I often underestimate how much help I could get if I asked. I have no idea if that's true for you, since I can't read your friends' minds. But consider asking for help with the animals, or with stuff like feeding yourself. It wouldn't be a disaster to be told no, even if it feels that way, and someone might say yes.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:56 AM on April 22, 2022 [10 favorites]

Best answer: The biggest thing to recommend is to signficantly lower your standards as to what's acceptable, so that you're just aiming for the bare minimum. I know I often create a lot of stress for myself by deciding that I have to achieve a certain level of functioning all the time, even when it's more than I can handle.

For example, maybe don't worry so much about feeding yourself healthy meals right now. Just make sure you're eating 3 times a day or whatever works for you. A yogurt for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana for lunch. If you end up having cereal for lunch or dinner a few nights this week, that's fine.

Don't focus on needing to take the dogs for a normal length walk. Focus on taking them out so that they can pee/poop, and then if you have the energy to do a bit extra, that's great. If not, that's okay.

Do you have any spare money to throw at this? Could you possible board the dogs for a few days (not ideal, but might significantly take the stress off)? Or pay a dog walker/pay for doggie day care?

Could you reach out to the organization that you foster the animals through? You could just tell them that you are currently experiencing some (non-COVID) health problems this week. Maybe they have volunteers who would be willing to come by and help walk the dogs.

Also, I've dealt with a lot of insomnia. Change your goal from getting X hours of sleep and just focus on spending X hours relaxing in bed. If you can't sleep, quietly read a book, listen to music, listen to a podcast, do progressive muscle relaxation, count sheep, whatever works. And I'd strongly recommend not checking the clock when you're awake at night. I know it's hard, but I feel like I stress myself out and have a harder time resting if I know what time it is when I wake up (so then I say, ugh, I only got 3 hrs of sleep, etc) and that way I don't know how long I've been awake. I keep my alarm clock covered.
posted by litera scripta manet at 5:58 AM on April 22, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry you're going through this. It sucks. You can get through it though. Until you can get to a counselor, you can divide your life into necessities and non-necessities to try and relieve some of the stress that way.

For example: It is necessary for you to eat and drink. It is NOT necessary to eat and drink healthy foods. Don't stress about that while you are in crisis. Just fuel your body in whatever way is comforting without being actively dangerous (for instance, it's a bad time to be drinking alcohol right now.)

You can do the same with pet care. What is absolutely necessary to their health (and yours)? Do those things. Don't do extra things. They need to eat and drink and pee and poop. Make sure they can do those things every day. Is there a safe, outside, fenced area where the dogs can go to do their business? If there is, you don't have to walk them, just let them out twice a day; they'll be fine for a week without exercise if you're not up to it. If there isn't, and you're used to giving them long walks for exercise and pooping and whatnot, cut back on the length of the walks. Do the minimum you have to do to ensure you're all safe and healthy. Cat litter boxes can be cleaned every other day with little issue other than getting smelly. Cats and dogs can eat dry food for a week (if you have any) which is a lot easier to deal with than wet food when you're not feeling well.

Some ideas:

If you have a job, call in sick. You are sick. You don't have to explain what kind of sick you are if you don't want to or don't feel safe being truthful about it. If they press for details, "really not feeling well" is as much information as any employer is entitled to.

Could you pay someone to come in and care for pets once or twice a day for the week? This may depend on finances, but it's short term, so may be doable.

If you have people who would hug you if you asked, would they also be willing to call you twice a day and remind you to do the things you have to do for the animals? Keep you company on the phone while you do them? I bet they would. You don't even have to tell them you're depressed if you're embarrassed (though there's no reason to be!) You can just tell them you're not feeling well and need a little nudge to get stuff done while you recover. It's true enough.

Let the animals comfort you if they seem willing! Cuddles are helpful.

Watch your re-runs, they're as close as you will get to medication while you're waiting for treatment. It's okay to use them as-needed. It's okay to wrap yourself in comforting TV for the week as long as you still feed yourself and care for the pets. Can you set yourself an alarm on your phone to trigger you to take breaks to care for yourself and them?

I'm a chronic insomniac and the worst thing you can do when you aren't able to sleep is stress yourself out further panicking about not sleeping enough or at the right times. Sleep when you can; when you can't, try not to worry about it too much. You won't die of sleep deprivation in a week - your body won't let you. There's no right time to sleep or right amount to sleep that you have to adhere to - just sleep when you can. Dark is better, so if you can cover windows in your bedroom and eliminate any glaring LED light sources, it could help. A sleep mask is what I use - or when it's cold, I sometimes sleep in a knit cap pulled down over my eyes (it's cheap and it works and keeps my head warm too.)

The last thing may be hardest - just make yourself do the things you know intellectually are necessary. Your feelings about feeding the animals and yourself - they aren't relevant. You need to eat, they need to eat. It's okay to cry while you do it, or before or after you do it, as long as you do it. Food and water for you and the pets are not negotiable. You can't opt out of these things.

(If there comes a point where you can't do it - you need help, and you'll have to ask for it to stay safe and keep the animals who depend on you safe. That is your number one priority. I know asking is hard - I know! But one of those people who will hug you will probably also be willing to help you - if you just ask for it. Even if they can't be physically present, maybe they can help arrange local help.
posted by invincible summer at 6:05 AM on April 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm rearranging your question into things I would do now vs later today, assuming it's morning where you are, which could be entirely wrong.

...I'm really not doing well. I have panic spells daily and crying spells every three hours or so... Can you help me come up with some ideas to gently take care of myself? Is there anything I can buy that will help me, like maybe a sleep mask or whatever? I hope this makes sense, I feel really out of it.

1) Prolonged, intense stress is very bad for mental function. Your ability to do basic life tasks, follow a TV show plot, or play a computer game is much worse now than it will be in the future, when you are not as ill. Depression and anxiety are medical problems.

You are not going to feel like this forever, even if the next ten things you do to try to help don't work, maybe the eleventh will.

Feeding myself is extremely difficult, healthy food seems impossible...

2) If you are having problems getting enough food into an animal for medical reasons, it is recommended to give animals food they will eat, even if it's not healthy/sustainable/nutritionally advisable long term. For me, specifically, the lemon flavor of Luna bar is a little bit like canned tuna for many cats or shredded cheese for many dogs, in that I will eat them even when I do not feel like I want to eat.

Can you order takeout pizza or fast food or buy snack bars at the "give a dog some shredded cheese" level of nutritional quality? You're presumably reading this on a computer, so if you're in a dense part of the US, you can pop open a browser tab or open an app like DoorDash to order delivery. As I understand it, the gig economy food-delivery services like DoorDash, Seamless, and PostMates are a little worse for workers than going to a restaurant's site or app directly, but it isn't a huge difference, and the gig economy services' interfaces are designed to be very simple and very attractive to people who are exhausted, drunk, high, and/or confused.

I have panic spells daily and crying spells every three hours or so. Sleep is difficult...Is there anything I can buy that will help me, like maybe a sleep mask or whatever?

3) A sleep mask and/or ear plugs may help, but what may help more is better living through chemistry. I am not a health care provider of any kind or your health care provider, but I am a brain problem haver.

In my opinion, you are at the stage where intentional self-medication is harm reduction, because continuing to suffer is not worth it. Sleep quality is worse if you sedate yourself, but your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep when you're this distressed is impaired - and continued sleep deprivation will continue to worsen emotional regulation and cognitive function.

Melatonin helps some people to maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle, but it has never impacted me in any way and you are probably way past the point where it might break you out of this spiral. Some people do CBD for anxiety and sleep, but it hasn't helped me on that front either.

I would suggest taking 25mg of diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or a shot or two of liquor immediately before bedtime, tonight. These are not good options for long-term management of anxiety or sleep problems - diphenhydramine tolerance can start to build after as little as a week of nightly use for sedation. In a week, though, you're going to see a counselor, and I've definitely had periods of a week or two where I needed pharmaceutical help to sleep and then I didn't anymore.

If you respond really strongly to sedatives (i.e. are a lightweight) or are on medication that increases your sensitivity to them, I would start with 12.5 mg diphenhydramine - break a pill in half.

If there are drugstores on your gig economy delivery apps you may even be able to get somebody to take a big jar of diphenhydramine directly to your doorstep. It doesn't matter if it's the stuff marketed for improved sleep or the stuff marketed for allergies, it's literally the same drug in different boxes, as long as it's not mixed with like NSAIDs, decongestants, fever reducers, or anything else.
posted by All Might Be Well at 6:20 AM on April 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Treat yourself like the American pop-culture version of someone who just went through a breakup. Cry a bunch. Watch sappy movies. Eat whatever sounds good. Cuddle the dogs a lot. Write bad poetry or letters you're never going to send. Try to tell yourself those are normal and healthy expressions of how you feel and what you're going through, and it's better to express your feelings than bottle them up. Don't beat yourself up for acting sad when you're sad.

Like, not eating is a problem. Not sleeping is a problem. Skipping basic animal care is a problem. Curling up on the couch with blankets and dogs, eating Kraft dinner, and falling asleep in front of the TV? Ok, don't live like that forever, but for a week you might as well just revel/wallow in it if that's what helps. If it's true for newly dumped romcom characters then it can be true for you too.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:21 AM on April 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Since you're fostering the animals you might consider returning some of them to whatever organization placed them with you for fostering. It sounds like you've perhaps taken on too many of them, it's a huge responsibility. Take care of yourself first. Get outside without animals to walk, chase after, clean up after. If you're in the northern hemisphere enjoy the spring outdoors on your own for a little while every day. Is there a room in your home that you can make pet-free? Use that room to do some kind of exercise. It's also possible that you have become mildly allergic to some of those pets and that is impacting your state of mind. See, for instance, this article. I hope you feel better soon.
posted by mareli at 6:29 AM on April 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The concept of inertia is sometimes helpful to me. If you lay around doing nothing, you'll probably continue laying around doing nothing. But once you get up and do something, you're more likely to do more things. The trick is finding that first thing that's not too much. Sometimes I've done pushups. At work, I'll send an email. It's good to have a list so that you don't have to wonder what you'll do next.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:02 AM on April 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have fostered dogs and the organizations really want to keep their foster volunteers, so try hard to help when needed. You might feel like a high maintenance loser by telling them you can't do all this right now, and mustering the will to make the phone call/ send the e-mail is hard in itself, but this is the time to ask for help. They can either get someone else to take the animals, pay to have them boarded, get volunteers to come give them exercise, etc.

Alternatively, as others have said, you're also putting in a lot of extra work to keep the animals happy, you're probably trying to get them through their own trauma, etc. But even if all you do is keep them fed and watered, they are probably less stressed than they would be at a shelter, so try to recognize that you're still doing right by them even if you're only able to do the bare minimum right now.
posted by metasarah at 7:23 AM on April 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you have money, you can solve your feeding yourself problem by signing up for prepared meal delivery from a service like Freshly. Then, when you feel like you have more of a handle on things you can cancel, or get deliveries less often. The difference between something like Freshly and one of those meal kit box subscriptions is that there is no actual prep or cooking, you’re just microwaving stuff, but it’s not full of preservatives and salt since it doesn’t need to sit frozen in a grocery store for months. You can also do grocery delivery and order a lot of prepped things, and mix and match.

Don’t worry about healthy, worry about enticing and satisfying. So yeah, order the ice cream, and also the fresh fruit, and totally eat frozen enchiladas three days in a row, or a bowl of cereal for lunch, or whatever. It’s fine. Don’t get alcohol, and do get some things with fiber like vegetables (it could be that stouffer’s spinach soufflé, that shit is delicious!) so that your guts stay relatively functional, but otherwise just stock up on a bunch of food you can microwave or graze on straight from the kitchen. Remove the barriers to eating via money.

I skimmed the other responses and I saw at least one person suggest returning some or all of your foster animals to the organization you work with. I want to gently support this idea. Dogs and cats absolutely respond to the emotional state of their caretakers. If you are working with animals who would be wildly destabilized by going to a different foster, then maybe that becomes a priority for you and your main focus for the week. But if you have other animals who would do fine going to another location, please take advantage of your position as foster and not forever home. It’s really, truly, okay to need to put on your own oxygen mask before you rescue the dogs and cats and snakes and whatever else. That said, there are aspects of pet care that echo self care. Like daily gentle walks. Maybe you can do a shorter or different route, or hire a dog walker temporarily? But walking is good to do when you are struggling mentally. Even if you find new fosters for the dogs I suggest going on small walks regardless. Also, if you feed on a schedule, maybe feed yourself on a schedule too. If it’s time for the cats’ dinner, it is also time for you to have… an egg and a handful of nuts and cherry tomatoes. Or peanut butter toast. Etc.

Also like, if watching reruns isn’t making you feel worse? Go on and watch the hell out of those reruns. Don’t flagellate yourself for things that soothe and comfort you. You mention regular crying spells and call yourself pathetic. Please try not to call yourself pathetic or other disparaging terms. You are in a crisis and crying is one way your body is expressing trauma. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to watch shows you already know the lines for, or play games you’ve played hundreds of hours already, or wear the same fuzzy pajama pants days in a row. These are not hurting you further, they are not triggering further panic, and they are helping you pass the time until you can have more structured help from a professional. It sounds like your body is in a heightened state of stress. Anything you can do to give your body time when it is relaxed is a good thing. Naps are good. Maybe listening to an audiobook of a book you’ve already read, while wearing a sleep mask, will evoke the non-panic of reruns and let you get some sleep?

Be kind to yourself, and as forgiving as you can muster. Now is the time to ask for help. It’s the courageous thing to do, even if your brain is screaming at you otherwise.
posted by Mizu at 7:40 AM on April 22, 2022 [1 favorite]


repeat to yourself as necessary.

meanwhile, yes, now is the time for milk+cereal, bananas, microwave quesadillas with maybe even like some frozen veggies in them, Luna bars, lil yogurts, freezer foods, my classic tm depression but really anytime meal of chocolate milk, pretzels and an orange, a combination I am convinced will keep me and maybe you alive and relatively well for as long as needed.

Have you tried progressive muscle relaxation for sleep? That shit knocks me OUT and is often used in clinical settings. Try YouTube. Alternatively search body scan / Yoga nidra. Sorry if this is a dead end for you, in which vase, yeah, a few nights of benadryl won't hurt.

One insomnia meditation I did during a bad episode was like, even if you don't sleep, you can still rest your body and this is very very beneficial. I think it was the Headspace guy. That really helped me.

Good luck with all this and get well soon.
posted by athirstforsalt at 8:10 AM on April 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Could you reach out to the organization that you foster the animals through? You could just tell them that you are currently experiencing some (non-COVID) health problems this week. Maybe they have volunteers who would be willing to come by and help walk the dogs.

Absolutely. Any competent rescue knows it's their job to support their fosters and they should mobilize to get you whatever assistance they can.

I hope you feel better soon.
posted by praemunire at 10:04 AM on April 22, 2022

Best answer: In line with most of the other advice: frame it and treat it like you would with any other (physical) illness, like a flu or something along those lines. I'd say that consists of not putting pressure on yourself, doing the bare minimum necessities as well as you can, and basically resting on couch/bed.

Eat what you can stomach when you're hungry and keep your tired brain occupied by anything that will capture your eyeballs, be it favourite show re-runs, crappy reality tv or Disney movies. As with the flu, you just need to get through the next days until you can start feeling a bit better and getting help. Good luck!
posted by snusmumrik at 3:39 AM on April 23, 2022

Response by poster: Um, wow. How is this place so great? I had to mark all answers as "best". Not sure if that's allowed, but I literally used bits and pieces of every single reply, and it has allcome together to improve my situation so much!

I asked my question out of deperation, but I didn't at all believe I would get much advice that takes into account how little I am capable of right now. I searched the web before I asked, and the advice I found there was basically "clean your house, exercise, eat healthy, get many hours of quality sleep". Those things feel about as achievable as climbing Mount Everest.

But you all, you understand. Thank you so, so much, from the bottom of my heart. It's not nothing to know that strangers care enough to spend their precious time writing words of encouragement.

If you're curious, here's what I did: I ordered earplugs, some almond bars, instant oatmeal, string cheese, crackers, and many cup-of-soup things. Then I made a list of what's absolutely necessary. And I think it's manageable. I can feed myself very simple things and toss kibble in all the bowls at mealtimes. I can let the dogs out in the yard regularly, and scoop litter boxes once a day. I just...didn't realize that's all I need to do right now. My thought process was more like "I have these four animals, and they rely on me for exercise, play, fun, and basic care. If I can't go for three hour hikes, take the dogs to the lake, and get the cats entertained with hours of playtime, I am a failure." But it is so true that at the shelter, they wouldn't get much more than very basic care. And with me, even in this impaired state, they still have each other (I have a bonded pair of cats and a bonding pair of dogs). The cats can climb all over the house, watch birds out the window, and lie around in the sun. And the dogs have a backyard with a doggy pool and a sandpit and they are even starting to wrestle with each other. I managed to take them on a walk yesterday, shorter than usual, but without panicking. And they can all snuggle up to me while I watch 1500 episodes of ER, which they actually enjoy. So maybe it's...okay?

Thanks to all who suggested returning the pets to their organization. I thought about that quite seriously, and will continue to keep it in mind as an acceptable option. I do think (one of?) the dogs would suffer, but the cats might not care much. I just like them so much. And plus, they sort of help me through the panic attacks by just always looking unfazed. Still, that advice (and the general wisdom of taking it easy) made me unequivocally say "no" when I was asked to watch my neighbor's kids yesterday. I have realized I am at my limit, and if I get any worse, I will have the cats picked up. The organization is reputable and will find them a different, equally good foster home.

I slept better. Mostly because I told myself I'm just resting my body, as you suggested. I took melatonin, too. And I used a meditation recording. It still took me an hour to fall asleep, but that's better than three hours. And I let myself sleep in a little, because I was still tired and what the hell.

I asked my sister to come over tomorrow, and the plan is that she'll walk the dogs and then we'll chat. She will also call me tonight during feeding time, just in case it feels difficult again. The advice to just do the things on my (very short) list of necessities was hugely helpful. I had tried that before, but with the idea of doing all the things. Then I'd freak out. But since it's changed to just be "kibble and cereal", I can do it.

"Depression and anxiety are medical problems." Thanks for saying that. It helped me see it as temporary, and allow myself to rest without the constant loop of "You think you have it hard? There's people living in war zones and poverty. Everyone else works two jobs and then takes care of their kids! Stop feeling sorry for yourself, get up and work." I am sick, and I will get better.

I'm sorry for rambling and writing too much, my brain is still fragile. TLDR; Thank you. I used all the advice, and today has been panic-free so far, and the crying is reduced too.

I did cry when I read your comments, because they were so understanding and kind. Thank you again.
posted by toucan at 11:46 AM on April 23, 2022 [7 favorites]

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