4 big ways to improve your mental health
In honor of May as National Mental Health Awareness Month, Spirit Times takes a look at how to boost your mental wellness. This year’s efforts by Mental Health America (MHA), a nonprofit that addresses the needs of those living with mental illness and promotes mental health, takes a theme of #4Mind4Body. MHA recognizes these many areas in supporting mental wellness: animal companionship, such as pet and support animals; spirituality; humor; recreation; work-life balance; and social connections.
Spirituality, balance and social connections are integral to mental health. With these foundations, consider these 4 far-reaching ways to support your mental wellness:
Tame your thoughts
Your thoughts are powerful. Unfortunately, many of us operate in the default mode of negativity most of the time, where we search for threats and faults, obsess over what isn’t finished and lose focus. One way to counter this is to switch your brain to focused mode with mindfulness, stopping to appreciate something or find joy.
You can work toward training your brain toward balance and happiness. Consciously shift your thoughts to more positive ones: wish someone well, even if it’s just to yourself. Focusing on others or something else, other than what you are dwelling on or what is bogging you down, is a way to stay present and find joy. One of the keys here is to regularly do the inner work when troubling thoughts arise. Don’t bury or gloss over the negative thoughts but acknowledge them, work through them—if it’s needed at the moment, and send them on their way.
Use mindfulness techniques to shift your thoughts, find your balance and stay present. Engage your senses. Meditate, go for a walk or just sit, clear your mind as much as possible and focus on your breathing. Take up a contemplative practice like breathing exercises or yoga.
When thoughts are stuck in negativity and awfulizing, you may have trouble with anxiety, which is essentially fear about the future. See our blog on “How to Stop Feeling Anxious” for more about anxiety and how to navigate it.
Find your truth
Discovering your own truths is a powerful way to free yourself from negative and self-defeating thoughts which bring you down and limit your life. Refusing to believe the lies you told yourself starts with examination of your own truths. It’s a psychological and spiritual investigation of sorts of your life journey. One way to begin the process is to look at your behavior patterns and life to date. An important step toward self-actualization is recognize and acknowledge these patterns, not just behavior patterns but thinking patterns.
One way to uncover your limited thinking and beliefs is to journal regularly. Start with your feelings. Taking stock of your emotions, and become more aware of each emotion by breaking it down and examining it to uncover what it is you believe about yourself and the world. Are there false beliefs you have been unaware of beneath such events? Are they compensation strategies that once kept you safe but now limit you?
John T. Chirban, Ph.D. and Th.D., puts in beautifully in his Psychology Today article, “Do You Know Your Truth? Is Your Truth for Real?”: “When we limit our responsiveness to our truth, we compromise our ability to achieve our potential. We become distracted from genuine encounters with truth and favor alternatives that do not lead to fulfillment.”
You can break through your limiting beliefs by uncovering your unconscious beliefs. In doing your own detective work on your thinking, you will have ah-ha moments when you uncover false beliefs, often rooted deep in your unconscious where much of our thinking and resultant behavior patterns spring from. Common false beliefs include “I am unlovable,” or “I am not worthy.” When you find yourself in the default mode of negative thinking, ask yourself about your initial feelings or reactions that triggered the thoughts. For a how-to on unraveling the false information within you to find your truth, see our blog on “How to Stop Negative Self-Talk.”
Trust the greater power of surrender. Chirban hints of the surrendering—to God, universal energy, others, etc.—involved in finding your truth, such as your core beliefs or personalized course of spirituality, when he says: “In the end, we cannot have it both ways; we can expect to grow in our truth—to acquire our spiritual potential—by our having control but through turning over control to who/what we believe as truth.”
In the busy pace of life, nurturing yourself isn’t always top of mind. A daily meditation or prayer practice can help put you in a more positive frame of mind. Spiritual practices like meditation are linked to increased levels of feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins; and decreased levels of cortisol and noradrenaline, which are associated with stress, according to an article published in India on the neurobiology of spirituality.
Practicing self-care may mean making difficult life choices such as changing jobs or leaving a toxic work environment. It’s proven that poor work-life balance increases your risk for health conditions like sleep problems, digestive disorders, and mental health problems. This is especially true for people who work longer shifts or on nights and weekend, according to a study in Chronobiology International.
Setting limits on in your personal and work life can help you find balance. While not always feasible economically or professional, setting limits on work hours, and the demands of a career can be difficult. But the personal pay-off is big. People who feel they have good work-life balance are more satisfied with their job and their life, and experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to a study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.
Another way to nurture yourself is to get in touch with your inner self via your “inner child.” Many of us ignore our inner child but this “child” will start acting out and defeating us until we listen. The inner child often roars up in times of stress or during times of change or transition by putting us in a funk, debilitating us, or limiting us until we listen and meet its needs. Often these needs can be about nurturing ourselves. Try talking to your inner child. Just like stuffing emotions and failing to acknowledge them, shutting the door on your inner child can lead to mental health issues later. For more about your inner child, see our blog “Is Your Inner Child Holding You Back?”
Putting yourself first and avoiding over-caring of others, whether physically, such as for disabled family members, or emotionally, can be a delicate balance for many. When physically taking care of someone, we can become overtaxed and exhausted. The same is true for emotional caretaking which isn’t mentally healthy when done in excess.
Emotional caretaking is more difficult to identify and recover from, especially if you are an empath, a highly sensitive person. Emotionally caretaking others is a hallmark behavior of codependency. Author Melody Beattie, in her book Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself (Simon & Schuster, 1986), defines a codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.
Too much emotional caretaking is often a coping strategy and as we mature, it creates havoc and our lives and limits us. Some of us fell into codependent roles in dysfunctional families where emotional caretaking of others was a way to survive or try to stay safe. Emotional abuse and the unsafe environments it creates are typically one where feelings aren’t at all discussed or supported in the family environment.
Emotional caretakers try to please everyone else, rarely take time for themselves and may even forget they need to take care of themselves. Trying to control or manipulate people, especially loved ones, or situations to go your way can also fall under codependent behavior.
Healthy relationships involve giving and receiving emotional support, caring and listening. If you are feeling drained, or burdened when around someone, it’s possible they are seeking too much emotionally from you, even unconsciously. Much like work-life balance, these relationships are about setting limits.
If you are taking steps to care for your mind, body, and soul but still feel like you are struggling with your mental health, visit MHAScreening.org to check your symptoms.
Resources used in this report:
John T. Chirban, Ph.D. and Th.D., “Do You Know Your Truth? Is Your Truth for Real?” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/alive-inside/201305/do-you-know-your-truth
Haar, J., Russo, M., Sune, A., & Ollier-Malaterre, A. (2014). Outcomes of work-life balance on job satisfaction, life satisfaction and mental health: A study across seven cultures. Journal of Vocational Behavior 85(3): 361-373.
Mental Health America, https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may
Mohandas, E. (2008). Neurobiology of spirituality. Mens Sana Monographs. 6(1): 63-80.
Wirtz, A. & Nachreiner, F. (2010). The effects of extended working hours on health and social well-being – a comparative analysis of four independent samples. Chronobiology International 27(5): 1124-1134.