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How to improve your mental health.
A stable is a place where horses live. You tend to the horses, clear the dung, organize the tack, and keep the place calm. That’s how you want your mind, too - calm, regularly cleaned and organized, stable. Then, when the sun shines through the windows, you look around and feel content.
Described more clinically, your healthy mind works in the background to filter and sort through all the information, edit, make sense of everything, and produce usable, functional feedback in the form of moods and behavior that serve you rather than hinder you. A healthy mind produces a balanced, purposeful, meaningful, and even enjoyable life experience. It can solve problems and envision a desirable future while properly appraising the present. An unhealthy one makes you and those around miserable in enough ways to fill up the latest edition of the DSM and then some!
Mental health requires investing time and effort. It doesn’t just happen. Some lucky folks emerged better life-prepared thanks to good genes and proper nurture. But everyone struggles, especially in times of great uncertainty and instability. You know, like a pandemic that lasts two years and counting. From the same circumstances, some emerge more resilient, and others fall deeper into the dysfunctional abys.
Here are a few things that can help you to remain mentally healthy - balanced, calm, and functional.
Journal, plan, think on paper. Getting it out of your head and onto the paper relieves the pressure valve. It also allows you to “see” your thoughts and edit them on paper. You give them shape instead of holding them like a ground fog in your head, covering the entire landscape and reducing your vision.
Thinking and planning on paper produce a sense of control despite uncertainty. Ideas emerge as your worlds form on the page. Through writing, you establish a mind-body connection. It grounds you. It makes you present. It connects you with the way things are and the way you wish them to be, at the same time.
For example, I had no idea this sentence was there until I wrote it. Guided by the intention to communicate something useful, I write as I think. Until it showed up on the page, I had no shape for the thought, just a feeling. But feelings can be confusing and deceiving, especially to the emotionally uneducated mind. Most don’t know how to behave their feelings. Writing things down, including how you feel, can help connect to the feelings and hopefully figure out a good way to behave them.
A little free time goes a long way – an hour to meditate, luxuriate, explore, read, and do whatever else you want to. No commitments. Unwind. Nothing produces stress like a time crunch. Overcommitting exhausts. You stop enjoying what you do and resent the demands on your time from those who need you. Then you feel guilty about it.
Free time allows your mind to meander and goof around, following its curiosities. While your commitments may be the main course, free time is the most enjoyable dessert. The kind you smack your lips, lick the spoon and savor the flavor. It’s the decadence of life! Decadence should be considered a human need. Until science catches on, though, you do your own experiments and enjoy your results.
At the same time, too much free time can result in feeling aimlessly useless and even bored. Procrastination goes up. Dullness increases. Depression can set in. Kind of like, if dessert is all you eat, soon you can’t enjoy it because you’ve habituated to it, and it no longer feels like a well-deserved reward. Instead, it gives you diabetes.
Make time for yourself specifically focused on increasing well-being and health. Think saunas, long hot baths or floats, massage, and naps. Think healthy eating, good and enough sleep. Also, comfortable, healthy surroundings. Ditch physically unhealthy habits. Your physical health directly influences your mental health. That’s because your brain is in your body, last time I checked. You can’t let your body fall apart without your mind experiencing the stress of it and loss of vitality.
Too much self-care and you’ve successfully entered the ranks of the spoiled rotten, self-entitled, overly indulgent, annoying people you tend to meet in places like Whole Foods and Lululemon.
People who understand
Stay connected with people you enjoy talking to and feel understood, sharing thoughts, ideas, and challenges. Close friends or family members can give you unconsidered perspectives, advice or just listen and share space with you. They comfort your soul by caring. Thinking and talking together helps process confusing situations or shape future adventures.
At the same time, if you lean too heavily on your friends, they won’t be available for much longer. Also, reciprocate, don’t just take.
Therapists and coaches will listen impartially and have the skills to walk you through the really rough patches or help you focus and work on a better future. With their help, you can examine past trauma, evaluate current situations, learn about relationships, and develop awareness and skills you need to take better care of your mind, all in a confidential setting. So when you can’t talk about something to anyone you know, it’s time to call a professional!
Breathe, walk, hike, go hunt for mushrooms, hang from a cliff, or sail. Soak up the colors, smells, textures, and vistas. Nature heals and expands your mind. It helps you reconnect with your roots, plug into the totality of existence, infused with awe and peace. Nature is addictive. Once you step into its domain, it will keep calling you back. Refusal to answer leads to depression.
Nature provides. For some, it provides a place to rest their head under the stars and forget everything else. Others find fascination with plants and the animal kingdom as food and medicine. We came from nature, went to live between walls, but never forgot the smell of moss and the song of trees. So, when the moon is full, we look up, and the wild parts in us start howling. Take a listen.
Acknowledge your luck. Celebrate small victories and progress. Be your own most dedicated and enthusiastic fan. You know best what it took to accomplish what you’ve accomplished. You know the most about your challenges and disappointments. You pet yourself on the back. I’ll talk more about this and why it matters in the next week’s post, so make sure you’ll get it. Subscribe if you haven’t already.
An attitude of gratitude
It helps you see the world from a glass-half-full perspective. Many studies show the connection between subjective and objective measures of increased well-being and an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude contributes to emotional resilience. It also makes you a more pleasant person to be around, which prevents loneliness as others invite you to every party.
No one likes a curmudgeonly complainer!
Body in motion
Exercise is the fountain of youth and the best anti-depressant with no negative side effects. Especially, when you do it in nature or in a way you love, like dancing, or playing soccer. You move, you live longer, feel better, and look better. Movement changes brain chemistry, pumping happy endorphins through your system. You get a spike of dopamine when you look at yourself in the mirror. Then another, when you post the picture on social media. Then a whole bunch more as people start liking it. Overall, exercising is a winning strategy, chemically and socially.
Me: I don’t understand people who do not exercise. What’s there to lose?
People Who Do Not Exercise: Weight.
Me: Well, OK. What else?
PWDNE: Low self-esteem and depression.
Me: Fine! What else?
PWDNE: Aches and pains.
Me: Well, I guess I stand corrected. There’s a lot to lose when you exercise! Like, all the things you don’t want anyway!
Pets who love you
They fill you up with joy. That special connection and unspoken understanding, care, and cuddles beat any flavor of ice cream or whatever other pacifiers you use when you feel down. Pets increase the fullness of life. Not that you can’t have a fulfilling life without a pet, but why would you?
Seek educational books on the way the mind works, offer perspective and opportunity for self-reflection. You don’t have to figure everything out the hard way. Someone out there has done it already and wrote a book about it. Read it and be a better you, faster. The beauty of almost 10 billion people out there is that many of them are more competent than you and me, and a whole bunch of them can help us.
They make light of what you fear or dislike getting you closer to facing it. Like what Woody Allen said, “I am not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it comes.”
Activities to get lost in for a while
To experience the pleasure of finding yourself, try regularly losing yourself. Work, art, no matter if mundane or profound, if it captivates you and holds you there until you feel full of contentment and satisfaction, it’s a great place to get lost. Consider it a vacation from routine, obligations, and responsibilities.
Accept things as they are because that’s the way they are right now. You can’t step into the future if you can’t stand in the present. You must see things as they are, not better than they are, or worse than they are. Your like or dislike does not change the facts of the moment, only your mood. But to change the facts of the moment, you must start with acknowledging them, accepting them, and then deciding what needs doing if you desire something different.
The exact opposite of acceptance is denial. You go nowhere fast when in denial. To recognize denial, examine the excuses you give yourself for the situation and how each one leads to where you are. If life around you deteriorates, it’s possible that you are in the middle of an armed conflict or a tornado just swept through town, but if that’s not the case, you may want to look at your own behavior. Chances are, what you do is causing the collapse.
A few things to avoid
Getting stuck staring at your phone
Too much time alone and in your own head
Dangerous and unhealthy situations.
What do you do for your mental health? Share your tricks and favorite strategies in the comments below. Looking forward to reading them.
Everywhere we look, a new calamity, it seems. We have so much to gripe about. But it’s THE HOLIDAYS! Here’s my gift to you. One of my favorite TEDx talks.
Celebrate What’s Right With The World by Dewitt Jones. Enjoy the story and the images! “In minutes, you'll rediscover the wonders and possibilities that surround us every day just waiting to be noticed and celebrated. Find out for yourself why former National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones is considered by thousands to be one of the most inspiring speakers on the planet.”
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Thanks for reading. Thank you for your support. Happy holidays. Enjoy your time off, your family, and your friends. Stay healthy!