With May being mental health awareness month, I wanted to take some time to discuss the concept of mental health. Mental health, at its simplest, is psychological and emotional well-being. Mental health is important to help with our moods, our level of functioning within life and our relationships, and with how we think and feel about ourselves and others. There is a common misconception I hear that mental health just happens, that either people have mental health or they don’t. I am not sure where that came from, maybe the stigma that still exists around mental health concerns, but mental health does not just happen, it often times takes work. Much like it takes routines and practices to keep our physical health in a healthy position, the same is true with mental health. While some people, due to genetics and life experiences, may experience less difficulty in maintaining their mental health, much like some people have less difficulties maintaining their physical health, there is still a need to practice good mental health hygiene much like we do with our physical health and our dental health. So here are some of the “brushing and flossing” and “eating your fruits in vegetables” of mental health to start incorporating into daily living.
- Deep Breathing
This is one you have likely heard of before because it is so essential for our mental health. One of the reasons why deep breathing is so frequently suggested is because taking a pause to take in a deep, slow breath helps ground us into the present moment. Often times anxiety and depression are pulling us to worry or obsess about the future or past when what is happening in the present moment is often times just us sitting on the couch or driving our car. Also, deep breathing reverses the affects of our fear response system, the need to fight, flight, or freeze, which is engaged into action when we experience anxiety. Deep breathing helps relax our body and brain by releasing chemicals in our brain that helps us relax, refocus, and release tension. To practice deep breathing, take a few moments to focus on your breath. Focus on taking in a deep breath that fills the belly and lungs, counting up to 5 and then release the breath counting out to 5. Here is an awesome breathing bubble for a visualization to help you practice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DqTuWve9t8
- Practice Mindfulness: The Act of Being Present
With the increase of technology, it is basically impossible to go through our day without facing a screen at some point during it. And with these screens come nonstop information, entertainment always at our hands, and constant distraction. We are losing the ability to be in the present moment, which as discussed above, is so helpful in reducing anxious and depressed mood and thoughts. Mindfulness is the practice of drawing attention to the present moment without judgement. It is increasing awareness of your body, thoughts, and emotions in the present moment without needing to change them or make them different but just noticing them. A way to practice this is to take some time to disconnect from screens and reconnect with nature in a mindful walk. Take a nature walk where you really notice the nature around you. Take notice to the newly budding trees, the complexity to veins on leaves, or the intricate detail that makes blooming flowers so beautiful. Not only will this help you engage in the present moment, it will help increase your sense of awe to the world around you, helping increase your mood.
- Practice Gratitude
Gratitude mean being thankful and showing appreciation for. Research shows that individuals who practice gratitude in their daily lives tend to be happier and experience more peace and feeling content in their lives. Not only does gratitude boost your mood, it also has been shown to help with physical health as well such as heart health, boosting your immune system, increase in energy, and helps with more restful sleep due to the emotional affects feeling grateful has on the body. When we think about what we appreciate, the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part of the nervous system) is triggered which helps reduce cortisol (stress chemical) levels and increase oxytocin (the “love”/bonding chemical) in the brain. To practice, set an alarm on your phone at a time you are generally free every day such as in the morning getting ready for work or at night getting ready for bed. Have this alarm be a reminder for you to take a “thankful” minute. When the alarm goes off, take a moment to list to yourself 3-5 things, people, personal characteristics, or events that happened that day that you are thankful for.
- Practice Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is the act of giving ourselves compassion. Compassion means showing concern for suffering. Many of us carry around emotional pain from our days without giving it much attention. Practicing engaging with ourselves in a self-compassionate way requires that we acknowledge this pain and give notice to it. It means we meet this pain with knowledge that pain is apart of the human condition and therefore we are not alone, which stress often tells us we suffer alone or are the only person to experience this. Then once we can notice our pain without judgement of ourselves for experiencing the pain, we meet the pain with gentile concern and kindness. This can look like kind words or engaging in soothing experiences such as taking a bath.
- Cry, Laugh
So many of us avoid our emotions as if having them means there is something wrong with us. But actually, our emotions are just signals from our body to inform us of environmental cues and our experiences. All emotions are a part of the human experience. The word emotion means energy in motion and when we deny, avoid, or shut down our emotional experience, we are trapping the emotions in our bodies not allowing them to move through us as they are meant to do. When we allow ourselves to experience the emotions that are coming up in a nonjudgmental way, the emotion is able to move through us and provide us with some information about potential needs we may have such as needing to set a boundary or seek out loving comfort. One way to practice allowing yourself to experience emotions is to watch a movie or show that you know will evoke certain emotions from you such as sadness or joy. While you experience the emotion, practice giving yourself comfort such as gentle, kind self-talk or physical touch such as a personal hug.
Our bodies were made to move. And many of us do not get enough movement in our days. Often times when anxiety strikes, there can be an overall sensation of being trapped due to our fear response system being activated. If we engage in movement during those times, it sends a signal to our brain and body that we are in fact not trapped and can sooth our need to fight or flight. Studies have shown that just 10 minutes a day of movement can help boost mood levels. Movement also helps us connect with our physical body and the sensations we feel. Often times through movement we can notice the tension in our body and work to relax the muscles. Stress is often carried in our shoulders, neck, and back. Notices the spots where tension is carried and working to release the tension by relaxing the muscle, stretching it, or moving it can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which mentioned above, aide in calming and regulating our body and emotions.
- Engage in Intimate Friendships
We are social creatures by nature. We are designed to engage in social relationships and feel like we belong and are apart of a social group. Often times when stress hits and we feel overwhelmed we tend to isolate ourselves. Isolating and withdrawing ourselves from others often increases these feelings instead of decreasing them. When we share our emotional experience with a trusted individual who shares an understanding of our experience, the intensity of the experience often lifts.
Written by Malinda King, MA, LPC
Photo credit: pexels.com