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Understanding Mental Health: The Good, the Bad, and the Funny with Jessica Holmes

Understanding Mental Health: The Good, the Bad, and the Funny with Jessica Holmes

In Jessica Holmes’ line of work, tragedy + time = comedy. A celebrated comedian, Jessica joined us for our last Virtual Speaker Series event of 2021 to share how humour and comedy helped her build resiliency, and other small steps she takes to maintain her mental health.

Jessica, like millions of Canadians, has struggled with depression, both post-partum and “regular, run-of-the-mill, garden-variety depression” as she calls it. Today, she uses her gift for storytelling and comedy to bring light to what is often a dark topic. She shares her personal stories, as well as her daily strategies used to maintain her mental health, to help end the stigma around the issue and to help others who may be struggling.

Find the Funny

While today Jessica is practiced at finding the funny in life, as a teenager she was more of a complainer. At 18 years old, fresh out of high school, Jessica and her friend backpacked across Europe on the cheap — they stayed in hostels, where she shared rooms with 16 other people, sometimes livestock, and used a “shower” that was actually just a hole in the wall.

Jessica said she must have complained a lot because her friend decided that she would rather continue travelling across Europe on her own, leaving Jessica to find her own way home. Her grandfather decided to fly out and join her in her friend’s place. While some teenagers may not want to backpack across Europe with their grandfather, Jessica said she was looking forward to it. Her grandfather had a knack for finding the light in life.

Not far into their trip, Jessica and her grandfather were robbed. A flashy car pulled up beside them with a fast-talking driver who, within minutes, conned them both into giving him their wallets. He promptly removed all their money, threw the wallets back at them, and, as he drove off, threw two packages at them.

Panicking, Jessica hurriedly opened the two packages hoping for something to sell and recoup their losses with. Instead, she found a tiny red, pleather jacket — very Michael Jackson-esque —, and in the second package, she found an even smaller tiny, red, pleather jacket.

Upset and scared, Jessica turned to her grandfather only to find him laughing hysterically. She asked him how he could be laughing right now, and his response changed Jessica’s life forever.

“We weren’t paying for the jackets,” he said, “we were paying for the stories.”

Looking back on our lives, Jessica said, it is often the most embarrassing or stressful moments that become our best stories. It’s what we share at parties to laugh and connect with others. Tragedy + time = comedy. This moment changed how she interpreted life.

The Depression Years

After Jessica had her second child, she experienced post-partum depression. She couldn’t leave her bed and she felt like she couldn’t parent her children. Her husband rushed her to a doctor, and within two months of being diagnosed and treated, she was back to her normal self. She felt confident that she had defeated depression.

Four years later though, when she was at the top of her comedic game, starring in Royal Canadian Air Farce and making people laugh across the country, Jessica struggled everyday to get off her couch. She would have an event, get on stage and make people laugh, and then spend the next three days recovering.

After two years living in this pattern, her husband insisted they see a counsellor. In the first session, the counsellor told Jessica that she has depression and needs to seek treatment. For the last two years, Jessica was doing everything she could to just survive, to get through each day. Suddenly, clarity was brought to her and she realized that other people don’t live like this and she doesn’t have to either.

Jessica did everything she was supposed to — therapy, exercise, getting outside, socializing, etc. — and finally, after six months of dedication, of commitment to the same routines, the veil began to lift.

Small, Sustainable Strategies for Big Impact

Eight years later, Jessica is still following the same regiment. It’s the small sustainable changes that have the greatest impact, she said. These small tiny actions result in having more time and energy to spend each day. For me, she continued, it’s all worth it because I wake up every morning knowing that I don’t have to fake laughter and happiness for the rest of my life.

Jessica shared her daily strategies and routines with us and why each of them play important roles in her recovery. Download her provided strategies here.

1) Quick bursts of mental or physical energy

Like doing speed sudoku or brief intense exercise, Jessica said. She likes to do a four-minute Tabata or high intensity work out each day. This is especially important to beat languishing, Jessica added, which is a type of pandemic burnout that we started seeing one year in. It is characterized by fogginess and lack of focus or ambition. The good news is that it’s temporary, Jessica said, and through mental and physical movement, we can counteract it.

2) Having a sense of humour

Studies have shown that those who can find humour in difficult situations are more resilient people. Jessica started keeping a “funny journal” as a kid, where she wrote down things that seemed terrible in the moment but after the fact were funny. And over time, this changed how she thought about life, instead of waiting for bad things to happen, she was waiting for the next funny thing to happen.

3) Deep breathing.

Countless studies show that this is the number one way to settle yourself in moments of anxiety. Jessica does this when she is stressed or up in the middle of night trying to sleep. First, check in with your body and relax yourself. Then, inhale for a count of 4, hold for 7, and exhale slowly for 8. Repeat this four times.

Breathing exercises help ground us in times of stress, because it brings us out of that “fight or flight” mode and back into a more neutral state. Right after this breathing exercise, Jessica said, she likes to think of a person, place, and memory that she’s grateful for to push that feeling of calm even further.

4) Relax

“Remember you are entitled to relax,” Jessica said. Jessica started a daily practice of meditation at the beginning of the pandemic in anticipation of mental health struggles. What she discovered is that meditation opens up your inner world, reminding you that you have a place of calm and safety within. The more you meditate, the more easily accessible this world becomes. “More is better,” Jessica said, “but two minutes beats no minutes.”

5) Present evidence once

This is a rule that Jessica and her husband put in place to stop having the same fight over and over again. You can say your evidence once, and then forget it.

Years later, Jessica read a study that people who complain out loud actually feel five times more negativity than if they had just kept it as a thought. If you are going through a hard time, of course share what you are going through, Jessica said, but if it’s a pet peeve or an annoyance, you can actually prolong your misery by voicing it.

A good rule to follow she said — if you complain and feel lighter through voicing it, go for it; if you complain and feel worse, it’s time to start presenting evidence once.

6) Set a timer on social media

Social media is like a “mean time traveling machine” Jessica said. You go on for five minutes and poof, it’s an hour later and you feel bad about yourself. It’s one of the major players in the rise of anxiety and depression in youth.

“I treat social media like a hot tub,” Jessica said. “You just want to get in and get out before you catch anything.”

7) Set boundaries with toxic people and situations

You are entitled and responsible for caring for your personal space. Do what you need to do to keep it sacred.

Jessica did a positive psychology exercise, where she was told to write down five toxic people — people who leave you feeling worse about yourself after you see them. The next step was to get an emotional divorce from these people — you can still be civil towards them, Jessica said, but you stop investing in them.

“You will always be disappointed if you seek validation from people whose values do not reflect your own,” she said. By putting up boundaries, you will free up your energy for more positive things.

Read more from Jessica in her provided list of strategies.

A perennial favourite on Royal Canadian Air Farce for 15 years, Jessica Holmes has opened for giants such as Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, and Oprah Winfrey. Behind the laughter though, Holmes has struggled with depression. Hoping to help end the stigma around mental health issues, she openly shares her story, bringing light and laughter to what can often be a dark topic.

Interested in learning more about Jessica and what she can bring to your next event as a keynote speaker? Email us at [email protected].

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