Some advice for improving your mental health game
by Dr. Emma Wood
We live in a culture that values productivity over health, outward validation above personal contentment, the bottom line (usually money) over the complex and at times painful beauty of being human. Within this culture, physical health is acknowledged as legitimate while mental health seems to be considered a “personal problem” or at best optional.
You broke your leg? Let me take you to the ER!
You can’t get out of bed in the morning because life is overwhelming? Just try harder, or drink coffee, or… maybe you are just lazy.
Around 25 % of America’s population experiences a diagnoseable mental illness in a given year. You may or may not fall into that 25%, but mental health is an issue for 100% of the population. An absence of mental illness does not the presence of mental health make. As a clinical psychologist I see the negative impact of the denial of mental health as a priority. Often, when people chronically neglect their mental health and self-care they ultimately end up with depression or anxiety which interferes with their ability to function.
The World Health Association defines mental health this way:
“Mental health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
I would encourage you to ask yourself a question: where am I at with mental health?
Being a therapist does not make someone immune from emotional and psychological difficulties, just as being a physician does not make you immune to cancer. All human beings are vulnerable to stress and ultimately distress. There are many ways one can improve or work on their mental health. Regular exercise that is fun (i.e. not pounding away on a treadmill looking at a wall), self-reflection, opportunities for creativity, play, relaxation, reading, meaningful relationships, eating delicious and nutritious food, these can all be part of your mental health routine. My routine is admittedly not as robust as I would like it to be. With two toddlers, a full time job, root canals, ear infections, church pot lucks, evening programs, etc. I find it hard to get it right. This is where the pièce de résistance of self-care comes in. The “mental health day.” The mental health day is a sick day off work or away from parenting (i.e. a babysitter). Consider it if mental health is sliding down the slippery slope towards mental illness.
I have come up with some hopefully helpful guidelines should you need and use a mental health day. I encourage you to do this, perhaps once a year, or more if necessary. Hopefully the following sentiments will assist you in getting the most out of your mental health day.
Things not to do on your mental health day:
- Clean the kitchen (or any other part of the house)
- Wear restrictive clothing
- Answer work emails
- Run errands
Things to avoid:
Picking up your children early from day care/school- it’s good to miss them. Ignore the guilt about not spending time with them. If you take the day for you, for the few hours you get with them at the end of the day you will be a much more present and healthy parent.
Avoid productivity. This is probably the most counter cultural message, but it is important to have time to live, play, relax, be in the moment.
Avoid that list of things that you want to get done when you have time. Taking the new Mom a meal, buying new shoes for your baby’s rapidly growing feet, meal planning and prepping, working on the taxes, mowing the lawn, etc. you are booked all day with an appointment with yourself- you can’t cancel on him/her again!
Avoid guilt- easier said than done.
Things TO DO on your mental health day:
Nourish your soul. There is a qualitative difference between binge watching Netflix and reading an inspiring autobiography. There is a difference between watching day time tv and watching a nostalgic comedy from your childhood. Think about what the junk food of your brain is- it’s a quick distraction but leaves you feeling empty and hungry. Start to figure out the things that fill you up.
Journal. Take some time and space to think, clarify your thoughts and values, tune in to your inner experience. This is probably the healthiest thing you can do on your mental health sick day.
Have your partner bring home dinner. Let yourself completely off the hook- don’t cheat yourself out of the full day. It’s like meticulously planting a garden, and then not watering it. You want to follow through to see the full results of your investment.
Hopefully these tips leave you inspired and motivated to making mental health a priority!
Dr. Emma Wood is a licensed clinical psychologist, public speaker, trainer, consultant and blogger in Waco. You can see more of her work and get more information about the services she provides at www.dremmajwood.com
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 World Health Organization [WHO]. “Strengthening mental health promotion (Fact Sheet No. 220.),” www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs220/en (accessed January 6, 2010).