“Why,” you may ask, “would I need an imaginary happy place in my brain when I have a real, physical one? And why,” you may ask, “are you putting words into my mouth?” Both great questions!

The answer to the second is that hypothetical questions are my favorite device when I’m trying to explain something. The answer to the first is that you may not always get to do what you want. That seems obvious, but I can safely say it’s taken me years to figure it out.

With class and work and laundry and even sitting in the dining hall because— although it’s awful—you need food, you won’t always get a chance to sneak away. Suddenly you’ll find yourself three hours into a term paper or group project, with no end in sight. In these instances you may react like I did. You may start sweating, fidgeting, and feeling like there’s a headless chicken running ’round and ’round your skull. It’s the feeling of panicky desperation, and if not dealt with it leads you to do things you’ll regret, just to relieve some of the pressure. My few bouts of self-abuse, I’ve come to realize, were preceded by just this feeling. The feeling like I would scream or cry at anyone who spoke to me—but forcing a smile and making a joke instead. The feeling of being cornered or utterly deserted in a room full of people. Basically, feeling trapped.

In these moments it’s vital to have an inner happy place. A memory or a feeling that, when brought forward, quiets and soothes your frayed nerves. I remembered how it felt to lie in my bed at my parents’ house—a queen-size Tempurpedic mattress with a down comforter. The memory of feeling soft, warm, and secure in that bed always brings a smile to my face—a real one, not the one for other people.

When that wasn’t enough, or if I could sacrifice a little paying attention in class, I would actually conjure a picture in my brain. A picture of a little run-down wooden barn and shack next to a small river. It’s a place I pass six or eight times a year, on the drive between my parents’ house in the Bay Area and my grandparents’ in Laguna Beach. I picture it how it looks at about six in the morning, all dusky and glowing, with warm overtones and rays of dusty light seeping through the wooden beams. If I could paint I’d have made a thousand real pictures of it. As it stands, my artistic ability lies near zero, so I’ll have to stick with my slightly-less-clumsy imagination.

Meditating can be another tool when you feel stuck in a place. Some people find it easy to completely empty their mind, or repeat a word and phrases over and over. For me, trying to empty my mind seems to just open the door for a whole new set of anxieties and fears to track mud in. Instead, I like to visualize a small, pleasing clip from a film or tv show, or recite a paragraph from a book I’ve read. Usually I can’t remember the whole thing, but the focus I put into remembering means I can’t focus on anything else. Another trick, if you’re the writerly sort, is to think about an object or a person, then imagine how you’d write a descriptive paragraph about it/them; mentally edit until every period, comma, and semicolon is just how you’d want it.

In summary:

Your happy place and alone time are just for you. They should calm you down and rejuvenate you. A happy place—mental or physical—is a better reprieve from anxiety or depression than self-harm or substance abuse or other destructive behaviors. I mean it’s better for you, and it works better, too, in the long run.

None of this is in ANY WAY a replacement for counseling, a visit to the doctor, or an otherwise healthy and balanced life style. Being alone, finding a mental happy place, all of that works great if you’re just feeling anxious or sad, but it’s not going to cure your chronic clinical depression. It can stave off a panic attack; it can jolt you out of your doldrums. And if you’re in therapy and/or on antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds, these techniques are good tools to use in conjunction with those.

Whatever you’re going through, you don’t have to tackle it alone. Talk to someone. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell a counselor or therapist if you’re feeling truly awful. (Do that even if you think you might be about to feel truly awful.)

But sometimes what you need the most is some time alone, with you. ♦