The World Health Organization states that “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.” It takes it one step further and adds that “there is no health without mental health.” With this in mind, I look at the resolutions that people tend to make at the beginning of a new year and can’t help but notice that so many of them have to do with their physical health. Of course that’s important! What surprises me is how infrequently you hear people place mental health at the top of their priority lists. We’re just too busy to think about that. Too many deadlines, quotas to meet, meetings to attend, bills to pay, etc. Until we get a wake-up call, we tend to assume that if we keep ourselves physically healthy, we’ll be alright. What we don’t realize, or choose to ignore, is that the (somewhat) silent mental stressors that we live with, tend to show up at some point as physical symptoms.
I live in the real world so I know that there are many demands on our time; that sometimes life “sucks” and bad things happen to good people; and basically there’s much of life that is out of our control. And yet.
And yet I believe that there are a range of things that we can infuse into our lives, intentionally, with the purpose of protecting our mental health:
- Stop trying to do it all, well. Having goals is important and healthy. Having a never-ending list of to-do’s, and expecting to do them all perfectly is setting ourselves up for stress, or distress.
- Maintain a sense of community. Family and/or friends and/or others with similar interests. Connection. Belonging. Sharing. Giving and receiving support.
- Learning to say no. For some this may be simple. For others (and we know who we are!) it’s something to work on. Boundaries. No one can set them for you. I always remind myself that when I say no to one thing, it’s because I’m saying yes to something else (which may be time for myself.)
- Set aside time for self-care. Every. Day. This could be 10 minutes, twice a day. Whatever you can afford. Some time where you can turn off the distractions around you (all of them) and reconnect with yourself. For some, it may be a power nap. For others it may mean eating your lunch quietly on a park bench. For others, it may be taking a long soak in a hot bath when you get home. There’s no right way to practice self-care, however we can all agree on a few basics such as the importance of sleep, proper eating habits, and some kind of movement practice.
- Practicing mindfulness. Yes it’s a buzzword today; but learning to be in this present moment, whether that be by meditation, breathing practices, yoga, or other forms of mindful living, will help us focus on whatever tasks we have awaiting us, and help us return to those tasks with lower cortisol levels (stress hormones). Being in this moment, prevents us from rehashing some event from the past, or living in some imagined future reality.
- Take a technology break. Hard. I know. As a society, we’re addicted to our devices. We’re also addicted to news. 24/7. We must be plugged in. But must we really? The headlines are overwhelmingly bad news. It sells. However the brain can’t process the overload of bad news being thrown its way. It causes the stress response in the body to engage. The mind has no time to recover from one negative piece of “news” to the next. This will wear out the mind, and eventually the body (headaches, poor sleep, anxiety, depression.)
- Have some fun. Laugh. Sing. Go out with friends. Whatever fun means to you. Let go of everything you’re carrying just for while. You may come back and realize that some of the stuff you’re carrying really isn’t yours to hold.
- Do something for someone else. Volunteer. Drive someone to an appointment. Just smile at the cashier. Call someone who’s alone, let them know you’re thinking of them. Doing something for another person actually feels good.
And if you find yourself in a position where stress has gotten the best of you; where your mental state is fragile and needs your immediate attention; by all means reach out. There are millions of people finding ways to manage their mental health with a variety of options and tools. Speak to a professional. Seek out support groups.
It does get better, with awareness and with intention. If you’re in this place, today is a good time to begin. Reach out.
Remember, there is no health without mental health.
Pay attention, from the inside out.