How to Proactively Protect Your Own Mental Health

We can’t remove the ups and downs of life, but we can enhance our ability to cope with them.

Photo Credit: boonchai wedmakawand/Getty Images
Photo Credit: boonchai wedmakawand/Getty Images

Science has not figured out a way to prevent mental health challenges, but we can do quite a lot to mitigate them — especially when we practice “good mental health hygiene.” I sat down with Deborah Miscoll, Psy.D., a psychologist and Managing Director at Deloitte to talk about mental health in the workplace. In this conversation, we discussed ways to proactively protect our mental health.

Jen Fisher: Are mental health challenges preventable?

Deb Miscoll: Generally, experts agree that mental illness is caused by a complex combination of bio-psycho-social factors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to help prevent the onset of symptoms. Early identification and treatment can help a lot. Simply checking in on our own feelings and thoughts on a regular basis can help a lot.

JF: You mentioned genetics.

DM: Yes. For instance, if you have a parent with depression, you may be at a higher risk to also have the condition. But other risk factors come into play too. It’s like cancer — just because the risk is present doesn’t mean you’re going to get the disease. With information and resources, you can do a lot for yourself to support good mental health, no matter what risk factors you may have.

JF: What are some ways people can be proactive in supporting their mental health?

DM: Self-awareness is huge. Combine that with a range of simple, teachable skills — like managing and regulating your emotions, developing resilience, nurturing interpersonal connections, cultivating optimism and gratitude. Even good nutrition, hydration, sleep, movement, and community engagement play a large role in keeping us mentally healthy. Those wellness activities can help us build resilience and respond with agility. We’re not looking to remove the ups and downs from life — that’s unrealistic — but we want to enhance people’s ability to cope with them.

JF: Basic wellness principles support mental health as well?

DM: Absolutely. When we’re in a mental health crisis, we can’t always change our experience of the world but if we’re still able to take accountability for our actions and exercise positive coping skills, we can often prevent the crisis from deepening. And when we’re on the other side of the crisis, the resilience we’ve built up can speed recovery.

JF: What kinds of skills specifically?

DM: I’d look at four main groups:

  1. Cognitive skills — These are about how you process everyday life. They shape perspective, impact your experiences, and they’re all wholly within your control. We can learn cognitive skills very quickly, and they have a huge impact on handling everything from regular ups and downs to clinical depression and other disorders.
  2. Relationship skills — I’m a big believer in cultivating effective relationships. And this is especially important in a world full of social media, which tends to move us away from real intimacy. Having good, supportive functional relationships is key to health — mental and otherwise.
  3. Gratitude — There’s a ton of negativity in the world. Cultivating gratitude and optimism helps us focus on what’s good. People who exercise gratitude as a behavioral habit find greater contentment.
  4. Emotion regulation skills — Things like breathing, meditation, and exercise, help us manage our emotional responses. People who practice good sleep hygiene experience more stable emotions too.

JF: So you don’t have to go to a therapist?

DM: Therapy doesn’t have to be your first stop. I understand that for some people, therapy is a bigger step than for others. But if you don’t take care of yourself, the fallout could be much worse. So, if you want to try a home remedy first, start with self-study. Practice your cognitive skills—keep yourself committed and accountable—and be as objective as possible about whether you’re improving. But be aware that in the midst of a mental health crisis when day-to-day life is substantially impacted, working with a licensed mental health clinician is likely the swiftest route to a positive outcome.

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