From movies such as Inside Out and hit television shows like HBO’s Euphoria, we have seen unprecedented progress when it comes to having open discussions about mental health. Once stigmatized and swept under the rug, the concern for mental wellness came to the forefront of everyone’s thoughts during the global pandemic, and we have all learned the hard way that caring for the mind is just as essential as caring for the body.
With the goal to empower more people to look after themselves and their loved ones, we have set out to create a comprehensive post that not only covers why it is important to take care of your mental health, but provides suggestions and instruments on how to do so.
What is mental health?
Mental health as an umbrella term is used to encompass our psychological, emotional and social well-being: these three factors greatly impact our ability to function on a day-to-day basis, and can start to affect us physically if neglected. Healthy thoughts, emotions and behavior are at the core of living a fulfilling life, and being mentally well is the key to improve productivity in activities such as work, school or caregiving.
How do we cultivate mental wellness?
There are five key aspects to be mindful of when nurturing your mental health:
- Take care of your body (keep active, eat well, stay hydrated, stay on top of your self-care)
- Build strong relationships (connect with people around you, have a support system, stay in touch)
- Track your progress (set realistic goals, do what you are good at, reward yourself for accomplishments and accept yourself for shortcomings)
- Stay in the moment (focus on the sensations you are currently experiencing and do not spend too much time thinking about the past or worrying about the future)
- Know when to seek professional help (and that there is no shaming in doing it)
1. TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY
Staying active can help you have a healthier sleeping schedule, boost your self-esteem and release those sweet, sweet doses of brain chemicals that make you feel good. Exercising doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym: you can get back into a sport you loved when you were younger, maybe go for walks and sightseeing around your neighborhood, or simply dance around your living room: Youtube is nothing short of ideas if you’re coming up empty on your own. It’s important that you find pleasure in these activities, and that you develop a habit of doing them.
Beyond having a balanced diet with whole foods, plenty of fiber and enough magnesium, making sure you are eating regularly and in appropriate-sized portions is also a very important aspect that often goes neglected: some tend to not eat when in emotional distress, others resort to eating as comfort, so it’s imperative you get to know your own bad habits and start to work on breaking them.
Our brain depends on hydration to properly function, and not having enough water in your body can cause a sensation of tiredness and take away from how well you’re absorbing your food intake, two things that we cannot afford when striving towards mental wellness. Thirst is not the be-all, end-all sign of when to take a sip: pay attention to the small ones such as the color of your urine, how dry or sticky your mouth feels, or even if you feel impatient or stressed, as these are all good giveaways that maybe it’s time to get yourself a good ol’ glass of water. It’s also important to note that drinking plain water is associated with decreased risk of depression and anxiety in adults.
Stay on top of self-care
It’s easy to forget to take care of yourself when you’re feeling distressed or are in the position of caring for others, so here’s your reminder to shower daily, brush your teeth, wear clean clothes, attend all your doctor’s appointments, have healthy hobbies and maybe treat yourself to a face mask or a warm cup of tea every now and again. Staying on top of personal hygiene and doing things that make you feel good just for the sake of feeling good are two ways of ensuring you are satisfied with yourself at the end of each day: the internet has plenty of suggestions on acts of self-care if you don’t know where to begin.
2. BUILD STRONG RELATIONSHIPS
Connect with the people around you
As human beings, it is in our nature to be social; those of us who struggle with social anxiety will still find themselves craving interaction, even if they’re unable to identify it as such. We need a sense of belonging just like we need a sense of purpose, and for that reason it is important that you cultivate strong and healthy relationships with the people who surround you, and that you work on your social skills at your own pace. Studies have shown a correlation between human connection and increased happiness, better health and a longer life.
Have a support system
Know who you can count on when things get tough – they can be family members, friends, teachers, mentors, neighbors or peers. Talk to these people about your emotions and struggles, keep them close, nurture these relationships and be there for them just as much as you would like them to be there for you. When your support system is built on a strong foundation, you will feel safer even with the risk of falling – you won’t have to look back to make sure there will be people there to catch you. These tips by the American Psychological Foundation can help you get started.
Stay in touch
Don’t let yourself drift away from the people important to you when things get difficult. It might be harder than usual to reach out or keep conversations going, but I promise the effort is worth it: you will feel much better knowing that there are people who care for you than you would if you let yourself isolate and feel alone during a rough patch. Mental Health America has a few suggestions on making use of technology to stay connected that are particularly relevant during the current times.
3. TRACK YOUR PROGRESS
Set realistic goals
We cannot expect to achieve miracles right out the gate, so while aiming high can be great for long-term goals, setting realistic short-term goals is the best approach when it comes to measuring the success of your mental health journey and getting some sense of accomplishment from it. Some examples of goals relating to the previous topics are exercising two times a week, making two new friends in a month or even having three meals a day, and while they may seem simple, keeping track of how often you are reaching these goals will give you an incredible boost in morale. A great approach to this would be SMART goals: make yours specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited.
Do what you are good at
The best way to make progress is by doing what you do best. Time flies by when you’re having fun, yadda-yadda: you know all the clichés and they do hold true in this case. If you focus on the aspects of life that bring you pleasure whenever possible, you will not only be happier, but be able to visualize the results much more clearly than you would with anything else. This is great for stress management and relief, and doesn’t necessarily mean ‘stop doing what you’re doing now’, but it may mean ‘find new ways of doing old things’, and it might be just the cue for you to do some self-discovery too. Whenever possible, do meaningful work past the constricts of a formal job, and you will find that adding a sense of purpose to your activities will make them much more fulfilling.
Reward yourself for accomplishments
Yes, go treat yourself to something that brings you pleasure! The human brain is easily conditioned, and if you make a habit of rewarding yourself for your accomplishments, you are actually reinforcing positive behavior and essentially teaching yourself to strive for success in a healthy way. It may be something just as small as getting yourself a cupcake, but it will do wonders for your mindset and increase your sense of self-worth. If you don’t believe me, maybe PsychCentral can convince you.
Accept yourself for shortcomings
The ability to forgive yourself for not being perfect all the time is called self-compassion, and it is something that some struggle with more than others. If you find this particularly challenging and find yourself stuck in a cycle of harsh criticism against your own actions, ask yourself this: would I hold anyone I love to this same standard? If the answer is no, it means that it is time to remind yourself that you are also human. There are some great exercises self-compassion that can help you learn, and none of them will take too much of your time!
4. STAY IN THE MOMENT
Present vs. Past and Future
It’s easy to get lost reminiscing in the past or planning for the future. Doctors and therapists often recommend a technique called ‘mindfulness meditation’ to help people struggling with mental health challenges to sharpen their focus on the now, and it is just as simple as not letting yourself multitask for once: be in the moment. If you are having lunch, taste every bite, count the number of times you chew before swallowing, pay attention to the delicious smells of food. Don’t miss out on the present, but instead train yourself to purposefully focus on what you are doing and how you are feeling. Get in touch with your body sensations and let yourself feel without judgement. If you want to learn more about its benefits, the American Psychological Association covered it in great detail.
5. KNOW WHEN TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
You don’t have to deal with it on your own
Tackling emotional challenges is quite the task, and there is absolutely no shame in needing a hand along your way. Knowing when to ask for help is quite possibly the most important step, not only in your mental health journey, but in your self-discovery. To arrive at that answer there are plenty of questions you can ask yourself, and there are plenty of scenarios you could consider as reasons, such as the loss of a loved one, feeling constantly anxious or depressed, having any fears or symptoms that are interfering with your ability to function on the day-to-day or just the need to talk to someone that is removed from a situation you are currently experiencing. If you feel overwhelmed by your thoughts, feelings or actions, consider reaching out to a professional for support.
We are all facing challenges
When things aren’t looking up it can feel as though you’re the only one that’s ever gone through it. I can assure you that is not the case. I speak from experience when I say it does get better, and you are not weak or less than for your challenges: if anything, you are resilient to have lived with them this far. Be kind to yourself and to others, and remember you are not alone.
If you or a loved one are in a crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there for you.
If you feel like getting started with tracking your mental health progress, Zamplo’s app lets you write a personal Journal, create tasks for yourself, register your symptoms and even add reminders for your routine activities – all in the same place.
Get started for free.