When working with clients, one of my first goals is to help them shift from a mindset of illness to a mindset of wellness. It's about changing their unhealthy relationship with experiences into a healthy relationship with experiences. Getting to a healthy mindset is what it's all about.
So what is Mental Health, anyway?
This is a term we hear all the time, and yet, what do we mean when we say "mental health?" What do you think of when you hear the people in your life and your care providers use this term?
Happiness? Wellness? Productivity? Distraction-free living?
What do any of these look like in clear terms? Can you name them? (Hint: It isn't healthy-looking, self-optimization, overachievers running marathons.)
Hmmm... Nothing immediately comes to mind? ... See what I mean?
In my graduate and postgraduate studies I never received even one direct lecture defining mental health even though I was being trained explicitly to help people achieve it!
When talking with peers and colleagues this is very common! In the current model, mental health is just the vague opposite of illness and diagnosis. I'm not buying that. It is important that we question and define for ourselves what mental health and wellbeing means so that we can determine how we may get there. It is our personal responsibility to manage our sanity, even in an insane world. It is our personal responsibility to compose ourselves and move forward, even in crisis. We are resilient enough to remain functional, resourceful, adaptable, and ready for anything.
Many practitioners are trained to diagnose and reduce symptoms but rarely do general care providers help us to see and aim where it is we are trying to go: in alignment with the deepest desires we have for ourselves and our lives.
Although much research and development is being conducted in this area. Shifting our public conversations about health is really where change begins. I have pushed myself to develop far beyond the classroom and training experience to develop comprehensive understanding and strategies for wellness.
Without further ado, we have, in no particular order:
10 Commonly Ignored Factors of Wellbeing for Well Beings
1. Body Regulation
In public discussion we often separate the body and mind in order to isolate aspects of each but it goes without saying our bodies are elegant, sophisticated, and fluid systems that include our brain, mind, heart, and soul. We take so much of our bodies continual, automatic management of itself for granted. With the advent of technology, many of us walk around "cut-off" from the neck down, living in the virtual reality of our minds and on screens.
Regulating your body is key to experiencing a sense of ease and security in your life.
Have you ever been too caffeinated and unable to regulate the resulting anxiety, jaw tension, tinglings/jitters, or racing thoughts for hours?
This is not unlike experiencing anxiety and the cyclic thinking (rumination) that can hold us frozen for minutes, days, weeks, months, or even years of our lives. Our bodies hold the memories of all that has ever happened to us. Stuffing down emotions, experiences, traumas, and internal crises will often manifest itself in the body later on.
Three key areas where we have choice in body regulation are:
Are we eating foods we are intolerant to without realizing it has an impact on our mental health?
Are you in a sleep crisis that severely affects your levels of tolerance, irritability, and focus?
Are you aware that research shows 30 minutes of movement a day has the same effectiveness as antidepressant medication?
Hydration is technically a subcategory of body regulation but deserves it's own shout out as it is significantly ignored in the conversation about mental health. Our bodies are made of so much liquid we are basically mini oceans in skin suits. No kidding, we are around 70% water. Water is life. To execute all functions of the body including mental functioning, appropriate hydration is key. Maintaining appropriate levels of brain, tissue, and organ hydration is critical for our mental health.
When you allow your body to dehydrate, you will experience difficulty with smooth mental processing, focus, positive moods, patience, mental flexibility and energy. Dehydration is strongly correlated with anxious and defensive responses.
Dehydration is also associated with exacerbating and causing so many negative health conditions they are too numerous to list here. But it is important to note that even mild dehydration changes our perceptions, moods, fatigue levels, and often causes headache. From what I know, if you wait until you are thirsty to take in water, you are already experiencing mild dehydration.
During my time working in schools, it was not uncommon for one of my first 3 questions to a distressed teenager to be, “When was the last time you had a drink of water?” I always give drinking water or tea as an option for a coping technique when someone appears distressed, upset, or in crisis. In addition to its hydrating properties, drinking cold water mindfully is a great relaxation technique, particularly for individuals with sensory sensitivity.
3. Inner Sensing
Although science has brought us far in our thinking about the body and how it works, it is often still taught that human bodies only have 5 senses (e.g., vision, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling) but we know there are many other sensing capabilities. I have read that humans actually have up to 12 senses including: balance, responding to stimuli (such as heat or danger), perceptions of the outside environment (e.g. have you ever ducked out of the way of a flying object, even before you realized it was coming at you from behind?) and perceptions of our internal environment too, this is called interoception!
Inner sensing, or, interoception, is your ability to perceive what is happening in the interior of the body. This includes sensing our heart rate, breathing, hunger, need to use the restroom, tingling/vibrations, constriction/tension, as well as our sense of heat and temperature. These are the intuition of the body and recognizing our body's signals is the beginning of building our personal relationship with our own intuition.
Increased awareness about what is happening inside our bodies leads to better self-regulation skills. When we gain insight into the baseline flow of our own body, we will have more awareness when we stray from it, what caused the upset, how we felt affected, and what our response was. Trained inner sensing skills make it easier to respond to ourselves and others in healthy ways.
The more "self-knowing" we are, (the more insight we have into our own inner sensing) the more empathic we are toward others. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel has an entire book on this called Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Mindsight, according to Siegel is Insight + Empathy. Mindsight gives us the ability to make mental maps of our own lived experiences and then use them to apply meaning to the stories, lives, and experiences of others.
Mindful body scanning is a fantastic way to begin awakening our inner sensing abilities by paying attention to our bodies and the experiences within them.
Yoga practice is another way to learn what it means to tune into your own body, sensing it from the inside out.
4. Mental Flexibility
Mental flexibility is the ease with which we can roll with the unexpecteds, the last minutes, and the inevitable changes in our lives. Flexible thinking allows us to show up fully in any given moment and act in accordance with our values instead of our first reactions. This is the foundational skill in what has been nicknamed “respond not react.” I don’t know about you, but this is one skill I’m really keen to improve.
When we respond mindfully, we are able to act in integrity. When we are reactive to the events of life, we lash out in self-protection, disappointment, blame and judgement.
When we can “decenter” ourselves within our experiences, gaining a wiser and wider perspective, we find new ways to relate to our own thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.
Psychological flexibility is one direct benefit (of many!) of having a personal mindfulness practice. Mindfulness encourages us to examine our private events, drop judgement about what is going on, and get curious about what’s really happening (versus the story you are telling yourself). Mindfulness makes us aware of how we are (or are not) holding ourselves accountable and leads us to proceed and respond skillfully and compassionately.
5. Sense of Control
An internal sense of control is an important aspect of mental health. It is the strength of your belief in your ability to have an influence on your own outcomes. Do you have choices in how this life throws down? Challenges to our sense of mental safety in relationships can be triggering. Often our first reaction is shutting down and putting up emotional armor, cutting us off from relationships. Building self-resiliency, self-trust, and a sense of control is one the best protections you can gift yourself.
This isn’t glass half-full optimism or self-love woo. This is practical, grounded, assuredness that you got this. Science proves over and over why “fake it till you make it” works. It is neurological. It’s time to start trusting yourself, your boundaries, needs, desires and step forward to claim this.
How much of your self-worth are you willing to give to others knowing that ALL their well-wishing for you, can never be the thing to change things for you? Building a sense of control is all about defining and respecting personal boundaries. When you define and respect your own boundaries, hold yourself accountable, and live within your personal integrity, you can move through the world in a less guarded way. You provide a sense of safety for yourself and are free to act within those boundaries, dropping vigilance.
6. Personal Currency
Healthy beings are not those beyond or without needs. They are simply beings that know how to get their needs met. What is your currency of love and acceptance? Or put another way, what exchanges in your life lead to you feeling the good feelings called love and acceptance?
For adults, the most popular resource on this would be Gary Chapman's, The 5 Love Languages. Simply put, individuals express and receive love in 5 basic ways: receiving gifts, spending quality time, using words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. In this theory, most people do not output and input love in the same language. I consult and support a lot of parents of special needs children, and children with delays. This concept is very important for these clients and all parents trying to understand and support their children. It's healthy and helpful to think about carefully.
How can you ask the people in your life (i.e., your partner, family, parents, friends, employers, teachers, peers) to fulfill your biological need to feel love and belonging if you aren’t clear on what your own currency of love and acceptance is?
I work with clients that feel as if asking for their needs to be met is burdensome. When I reflect on this belief, I believe the burden lies in passively asking the people around you to expend their own mental energies second guessing what's wrong, what they can do, and what your expectations are because you refuse to come forward and let others know what you need. It's exhausting for everyone.
What must be present for you to feel accepted? What are your barriers to feelings of acceptance? What are your non-negotiables? What do you give? What do you withhold? What exactly do you expect in return? What would it take to accept yourself? In what ways have these needs gone unmet? For how long? How would accepting yourself change your life? Where are there disparities? Where are there patterns?
Challenge yourself to journal this one out. When you know the answers to these types of questions you can start creating clear lines of communication and more supportive boundaries for yourself and others. When you honor your boundaries, you increase your feelings of safety and acceptance in your relationships to others.
Self-compassion is easy to give lip service to and difficult to truly engage. Because we have a natural tendency to cover up whenever our shame or fragility is triggered, sometimes we mask excuse making as self-compassion. Sometimes we mask indulgence as self-care, right?
I’m not saying we judge ourselves for these behaviors, but it's important to notice what we’re really doing instead of the story we tell ourselves. When we are open to accepting ourselves for exactly who and where we are, we can begin to meet ourselves in the areas we most need our own support.
Dr. Kristin Neff has conducted really beautiful research on self-compassion. She has found that biggest reason people are not more self-compassionate is this fear of becoming self-indulgent. Over and over people believe that self-criticism is the thing keeping them in-line. However:
"One of the most robust and consistent findings in the research literature is that people who are more self-compassionate tend be less anxious and depressed. The relationship is a strong one, with self-compassion explaining one-third to one-half of the variation found in how anxious or depressed people are.” Dr. Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.
Witnessing yourself with honesty, with compassion is healing. In moments when my heart needs to feel compassion, softening, or tenderness I use a practice I learned from Tara Brach. Bring one hand to rest on your heart or softly on your cheek and tell yourself, "it's okay sweetheart." When we learn to build a truly compassionate relationship with ourselves we become our own source of strength and resiliency.
Neuroscience has taught us that "neurons that fire together, wire together." Meaning, that when we engage in an action or behavior our brain creates a pathway connecting the information that comes in to the action of how we responded. These connections occur over and over to create well-worn paths, eventually becoming quick, automatic reactions of the body. This is the brain's way of being efficient with its energy. Unfortunately, not all patterns are created intentionally. Many are created when we are youth and become trusty coping strategies, even when they don't serve us. This is a huge reason why habits can be life-long and are difficult to break. It requires both discipline and commitment to truly change.
For individuals affected by trauma, the body often remains in an active/emergency state even when no threat is present. This causes long-term health problems, imbalances neurochemicals, and exhausts the systems of the body causing it to operate with minimal juice (i.e., you feel fried and empty and it's making you sick, exhausted, and irritable). This is because, "neurons that fire together, wire together." It is easy for your body to jump to those responses automatically creating a sense of danger and engage the fight/flight/freeze response. It takes intentional effort to practice relaxation if we want to rewire our bodies to respond thoughtfully, instead of reacting. Relaxing helps our cognitive processes because it allows us to fully utilize all of our brain power. In emergency mode, the brain bypasses most functions including planning and organization.
Mindful breathing is one way to teach our bodies to release and relax. Mindfulness activities are referred to as a practice because you practice them over and over, beginning again. You never graduate from mindfulness. When we practice relaxing, releasing tension in our faces and bodies, and center on the breath, we provide ourselves with the ability to exercise control and override unhelpful, emergency responses.
You cannot expect this to work in a crisis moment without dedicating yourself to the practice first. The more you invite your body to find the state of relaxation and resting in the cycle of the breath, the easier it will be for your body to find. By developing and continuing your practice, you strengthen the neuropathways to refocus, relax, ground, and center. "Neurons that fire together, wire together."
We should be teaching all children effortful relaxation skills to promote body, mind and heart self-regulation skills. Practicing as an adult in community, with your family, or in a solo home practice will be a lifelong gift.
9. Healthy Coping Skills
Building a healthy fund of coping skills is one of the hall markers of a mentally healthy person. This means you have a set of tools, activities, practices, or mindsets that help you to deal or cope with daily and life challenges. It appears easy to build these coping techniques in young children but it is crucial that we are not forgetting teens, adolescents, and adults when we discuss coping strategies. Adults often lack an accountability source and will instead find coping in unhealthy means such as addiction, self-medication, shopping, and other numbing strategies.
There is too much to say and much already said about coping strategies, I thought I would list some of the immediate ones that come to mind:
Mindful breathing, going for a walk, exercising, orienting yourself to the corners of the room, naming 5 things that you see, hear, or touch without moving, using tarot/oracle/therapy cards, journaling, naming difficult thoughts/emotions as they arise, making art, drinking cold water or hot tea, connecting with a friend, connecting with an animal, taking a bath...
The thing about coping skills is that they are completely customizable and personal to you! There are so many good resources and practitioners that can help you determine which ones are most effective. Tap into your internal source of self-compassion and ask yourself about your personal currency? How can you show yourself love and care when things are difficult? How can you provide for yourself when you most need it in order to create a more trusting and loving relationship to yourself?
10. Mental Health Literacy
This post began with the discussion of the lack of Mental Health Literacy in public conversation and professional training programs. In order to dismantle stigma and change perceptions around mental health, ability/disability, strength/weakness we need literacy, awareness, and explicit education. Education and fluency is the best catalyst I know for change and I feel pretty passionate about the potential to help other people through this type of education in my online content.
By dismantling our own perceptions and the external voices telling us why and how we’re doing everything wrong, why our kids are doing everything wrong, and why it’d be better if everything was different, we can begin to create a deeper sense of caring. Unfortunately, this does not support the current capitalist model of selling fast, easy solutions and we are continually bombarded with mixed messages. I hope as we progress forward and continue challenging the status quo we will begin caring more for people than for profits.
Looking to the future, our survival depends on actively building a culture of care. Our current culture pathologizes typical behaviors and sells you "get better" solutions. It will only cost you 6 easy payments, shopping for this specialty thing, and taking this pill. While I believe in utilizing the tools available and discovering which ones work for you, it isn't about sales. It isn't about secrets. It isn't about gurus.
We need to re-LOVE-utionize our culture! To recognize trauma instead of labeling it "out of control," "crazy," or "insane." To see symptoms of depression and not someone who doesn't care and knows better. To allow BIPOC a full spectrum of emotion and experience without critique, oppression, or mislabeling. One that considers physical and mental accessibility. Our future depends on our ability to recenter personal and community health, stories, and lived experiences over consumption, commercial success, and public reputation.