What do you think about when you hear or read the expression “mental health”? Do you think about your own experiences of joy, happiness, sadness, jealousy, feeling down, low or depressed, longing, elation, satisfaction, desire, hope and any other emotional state you might experience? Or, do you only think of depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), bipolar, suicidal feelings or self-harm?
A new Understanding of Mental Health
Because, mental health is the daily experiences of feelings, sensations and emotions across a spectrum that ranges from mild to intense and positive to negative. For so long, the new discipline of Psychology studied the human condition at its most dysfunctional. It created models of mental health skewed towards a lack of function and normality. Now, Psychologists are researching the functional mind as well, high achieving people, not just those paralysed by trauma and abuse, happiness not only depression, the neuroscience of joy as well as the factors that contribute to low self-esteem.
We all have Mental Health
This has opened our understanding that we all have mental health. Yes, there are those that struggle with severe mental health conditions. That can make it hard to function at a high level in day to day society- schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder for example.
But most of us feel mild experiences of being low, finding it hard to focus, indecision, seeing the negatives in situations rather than the positive, lacking creativity, productivity and resilience as well as battling with our inner critic. These are daily battles that almost all of us face to a greater or lesser extent. We lose sight of what is truly fulfilling and meaningful for us as individuals, and our sense of self and mental health suffer as a result.
Sometimes you don’t sleep enough, exercise sufficiently, eat healthily, drink too much alcohol or take more recreational drugs than is good for you and that all leaves you a little under par. Chronic stress can erode your mental health too, leaving you low in energy, a little jaded and bruised, less responsive and tolerant as you’d like. Even short-term stress, brought on from moving house, separation and divorce, grieving, illness and financial pressures for example, can negatively impact your mental health.
The Spectrum of Mental Health
So, mental health is not a condition. There is only the condition of your mental health. It lies on a spectrum and you are moving along that spectrum at every moment of every day. Some mornings you’ll get up and you’re humming a tune to yourself. Someone cuts you up on the commute and suddenly you’re fuming. Or perhaps it doesn’t affect you? Into work and e-mails, meetings, powwows by the water cooler may leave you a little low? Or not? Or perhaps you feel more vibrant, energised and alive as a result?
Does a late lunch leave you a bit grouchy, or missing your workout leave you less energised and alert for the afternoon stint? What about the rush for school pick up and dropping off for after-school clubs, lessons and play dates? An argument at home or a particularly delightful evening with your spouse and kids may lead to a totally different mental state by the end of the day. Your mental health is zig zagging all over the place throughout the day. That is part of the human condition.
Mental health is too fluid to be static, consistent and pigeon-holed by a few diagnoses. Through these highs and lows throughout any day, you are met with opportunities to manage your mental health so that you can remain creative, productive and resilient.
Managing your Mental Health
A handful of tools and resources can help you manage your mental health. Even if you are on medication for a diagnosed condition, these tools can help. And if you are not diagnosed and recognise the ebb and flow of your mental health as you go through your day, these tools can help you manage your mental health as well:
- The most important thing is to have an awareness of your mental health, noticing the events and moments that positively and negatively impact your mood and feelings. Without that awareness, you cannot know that your mental health needs to be managed. It takes a little introspection and reflection to recognise these patterns and preferences. And if you are feeling really brave, ask someone who knows you well and that you can trust, to tell you what they notice about your mental health, honestly and kindly.
- Develop your emotional intelligence. Learn to express how you are feeling. It starts with the body, noticing the feelings and sensations that are showing up as you go through your day. Then, find the words to describe those feelings and sensations and accurately express the emotions that are connected to those feelings and sensations. For example, when I have been sitting at the computer too long, my body feels sluggish and low in energy. I used to worry it was because I was bored, or the work wasn’t exciting enough. In time, I learned that the feeling comes with prolonged sitting. If I want to buck that sluggishness from inactivity, I need to get up and move around for a while. Maybe I’ll work out for example or go for an energetic walk. Then I’ll return to the screen, refreshed, revitalised and alert.
- Talking to a trusted friend, colleague, manager, partner. Having someone to share your thoughts and feelings with is so important in managing mental health. It solves nothing usually, but it does allow you to create some distance and get some perspective on the challenge so that you are able to work out the next step for yourself. Creating this opportunity at work is becoming more acceptable with Mental Health First Aiders being trained to listen and signpost. Also, managers are expected more frequently to give time and space for their team members to come to them with personal as well as work-related challenges. It can create a lot of anxiety for managers, who can become fearful that they need to solve the problem, suffer embarrassment, will do more harm than good or may be triggered themselves. What is often needed in the moment is a listening ear, free of judgement, prejudice, opinion or assumptions. This is true whether at work or at home. Work places are even bringing in coaches specifically to give their employees the opportunity to talk about personal and professional challenges. It is recognised that this can help people manage their mental health more effectively. Which reduces presenteeism and absenteeism and improves retention and productivity.
- Seeking professional assistance through a coach, counsellor or therapist. In spite of having awareness, being emotionally articulate and having people to talk to (the first three on our list), sometimes a coach or therapist can support you in taking a deeper dive into your challenges and goals. Therapists tend to take you to the past to explain your present behaviour. Coaches tend to focus more on creating the future you would like to live. And build a bridge from the present to manifest that future. A good coach and therapist will be able to point you towards what will likely serve you best, coaching or therapy. So, please, if you think you might want additional support, reach out to either a therapist or coach and they will be able to advise.
- Moving the body is great for your mental health. It keeps you fit, mobile, active, flexible and releases endorphins that positively impact your brain and nervous system chemistry and make you feel good. You’ll experience more vitality, energy and alertness when you work out and less if you don’t.
- You are not a machine. Take breaks as you need to maintain your mental buoyancy, vitality, engagement, productivity, creativity and joie de vie. Short breaks might include a walk to the water cooler, kitchen or photocopier or even a stretch at your desk. Longer breaks may mean getting away from your desk for lunch and coffee breaks. Like going for a walk, working out, getting a cycle in.
- If you use your phone or computer a lot for work during the day, take a break from them in the evenings and weekend. Do completely different things out of work compared to what you do at work. Slow down. Relax and enjoy a read, a coffee, a chat with friends. Snooze. You don’t need to go on a holiday or weekend break. Take time in your week to rest so that you can rejuvenate, revitalise and be more resilient.
- Diet and hydration. A balanced diet and good hydration do wonders for maintaining good mental health. Good hydration means plenty of water and being careful about the amount of dehydrating fluids like caffeinated drinks and alcoholic beverages you consume. In my experience, diet, sleep, breaks and rest are the least considered factors in contributing to strong mental health. Yet they are at the foundation of good mental health management. You do not have to rely on anyone else to achieve them. They are easy to do, though life-style can make them challenging to achieve. And life-style is the main stumbling block. Find a practical way to achieve that and you have great resilience built into your life and mental health.
- In my opinion, sleep is the single most important factor that contributes to me eating a balanced diet, resting well, being creative and kind to myself and others. I feel grounded and at peace when I have slept well. This positive affect compounds over time as I continue to get good sleep. And it erodes when I consistently get poor sleep. Healing and processing take place while you sleep. So getting in the hours is important if you want to face your day fully charged and frisky for life.
Over to You
How do you manage your mental health? Are you aware of your feelings, sensations and emotions throughout the day and manage them well? Who do you talk to when things are challenging for you? From the list of nine, how many of them are you using to manage your mental health and well-being? Of those you are not using, which would you choose to implement? What are your thoughts about mental health now that you have read this blog?
Pass it on
If you found this article useful, please pass it on. Would your place of work benefit from some training around managing mental health through coaching? Why not give me a call.