Note from Alexis: This is a guest post from Jim and Jolyn Armstrong of The FOTA Project.
For the first six months after my son’s arrest, I felt like I was going crazy. I couldn’t focus on work, my marriage to Jim was suffering, and I was barely sleeping. I felt like I was in the middle of an endless, raging storm, with howling winds, pelting rain, and debris lashing at me from all sides. I needed to regain control of my life and get some relief. I couldn’t make the storm go away, but eventually, over many months of searching and studying, I learned how to find the eye of the storm. I learned specific techniques to create a peaceful, calm, tranquil space for myself in the midst of the chaos. If you have a loved one who has been accused of a crime or who is incarcerated, I want to teach you these strategies to protect your mental health and save you months of painful searching.
Guarding your mental health is vital during a crisis, especially something prolonged like facing serious legal problems or being incarcerated. Failing to guard your mental health during extended periods of high stress is like standing out in the middle of a hurricane unprotected. You’re pounded on all sides by fear, uncertainty, and stress. Your quality of life is terrible. Your emotional health—and even your physical health—suffers. You don’t deserve to live like this. It’s time to find the eye of the storm.
As I made a concerted, mindful effort to bring some peace back into my world, I discovered 5 techniques that helped me find the eye of the storm. I have written separate articles that dive deeper into each strategy, but here’s a brief overview to familiarize you with the concepts that can help you protect your mental health.
5 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health
1. Protect Your Sleep
This is such an important step I had to list it first. Getting regular, quality sleep is a crucial way to protect your mental health but can be difficult when a loved one is facing serious criminal charges. Here are some strategies to help make that happen.
- Have a night-time ritual. Doing the same things each night before bed as a ‘wind down’ period puts your body and mind in the right state for sound sleep.
- Go to sleep around the same time each night and get up around the same time each morning. Having a consistent structure around sleep is smart during good times, but it becomes critical during times of stress.
- Melatonin in small doses for a short time is a good, non-addictive supplement that can assist you if other strategies aren’t helping enough. (See a medical professional before beginning any supplement or medication.)
You can read our full article about why and how to protect your sleep here.
2. Take A News & Social Media Break
When you or a loved one are facing serious criminal charges, it’s important to eliminate as many sources of stress as possible. Social media and the news are two major stressors. They can be emotionally sapping under the best of circumstances, and right now you aren’t in the best of circumstances. Delete all of those things from your phone right now, and commit to staying away for a period of time. It doesn’t have to be forever, but in this moment you need a break. For more strategies on how to make this work, and how to maximize the benefits, read this.
3. My ‘Positivity In, Negativity Out’ strategy
This is an effective strategy I recommend to nearly every person I work with.
Starting today, only allow positive things (information, entertainment, people) into your personal space.
- First, eliminate the negative:
– You’ve already committed to eliminating social media and the news, so you’re ahead on this one!
– To the largest degree possible, commit to eliminating negative people from your life. If you can’t completely eliminate them (e.g. negative co-workers), create as much distance from them as possible and/or limit the amount of time you spend engaging with them. Anyone who leaves you feeling worse after being around them should be allowed as little space as possible in your life.
- Next, add in the positive.
– Seek out positive information, positive entertainment and positive people to invest your time and energy in. Having trouble coming up with ideas? Make a list of who and what makes you smile and feel good. This can be something silly like watching cat videos on YouTube. It can be reading an inspirational book, watching an inspiring movie, or weekly coffee dates with your BFF who you KNOW has your back. Begin adding these people and things into your daily life.
- Finally, when you encounter negativity in any form:
1. Acknowledge that this is negativity.
2. Quietly push it away, or excuse yourself. For example, if someone in your circle is being negative, there’s no need to make a scene. (That just creates more stress and negativity.) Instead, just politely excuse yourself. In other words, if anything negative pops up in your life, quietly and joyfully eliminate it.
3. Purposely turn to something positive to replace the negativity. This could be reading a chapter from a book that makes you feel good, watching a silly sitcom that makes you laugh, or taking a walk through the woods.
You can find more details on this strategy here
4. Daily Self-Care
In order to protect your mental health, it’s important that you mindfully make self-care part of your daily routine. Here are some ideas from my self-care list:
- Indulge in a bubble bath once a week. I like to pour myself a glass of wine, get a good book, pop on some iTunes and drift away in my own little world for an hour.
- Go shopping! For me, simply walking around a mall or Target helps melt away stress, and buying something nice for myself makes me feel good.
- Exercise. 30 minutes on the treadmill or a walk around a local lake or the river gets my endorphins flowing. Afterwards I always feel more peaceful.
- Eat a healthy meal that you (and your partner) prepare together. Jim and I enjoy to cooking together. We don’t do it often enough, but when we do we like to make a little party out of it. We’ll put on some music or a comedian from iTunes, open a bottle of wine and enjoy ourselves as we chop vegetables and boil noodles.
- Don’t skip daily self-care. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you if that’s what it takes. Plan on doing something small which makes you feel good every day, and a larger activity once a week. Plan it ahead of time so you have something to look forward to.
For more tips and strategies on self-care, here are some resources.
5. Focus on the blessings you have, not the loss
An effective way I have found to reprogram my mind if I find myself focusing on loss is to maintain an ongoing Gratitude List. You can do this first thing in the morning to set the tone for your day, or last thing before bedtime if you need help sleeping, or both. This is one of my favorite strategies if I’m finding sleep elusive. Here’s how it works:
- First, Write 3-5 things from the previous 24 hours that you are thankful for. These can be simple things, like really enjoying your lunch, or finding a new comedy to binge on Netflix.
- Second, Take a moment or two, close your eyes, and actively remember how each of those things made you feel. Take yourself back to those times. Relive those moments and those positive emotions.
After a few days of consistently writing a Gratitude List, you’ll find yourself looking for things you can write down. That’s the point: train your mind to seek out positive moments from your day for which to be grateful.
For more tips and strategies on dealing with loss, here are some resources.
Jolyn and Jim are the husband-and-wife co-founders of The FOTA Project (Families Of The Accused). When a loved one of Jolyn and Jim’s was arrested, they discovered that there are few support resources for the traumatized families of people accused of a crime. That’s why they launched The FOTA Project. FOTA’s mission is to provide emotional counseling, support and guidance for the families of people who have been accused of a crime or who are incarcerated. For more information visit theFOTAproject.org.