Few of us would argue that mental health should be low on our priority list. In theory we know it matters, but then reality takes over.
Deadlines dominate. We’re too tired. The kids get sick. We get lost in the vortex of our screens.
Even in an era being called the “Age of Anxiety” and a “global mental health crisis”, many of us struggle to place mental health on our never-ending lists, never mind keep it at the top. Then the wake-up calls come.
The American Psychological Association reports that we often do not recognize our vulnerabilities to stress and mental health issues until we start to show up with physical health symptoms. This lines up with the World Health Organization’s grim report that by 2030 stress-related illness will surpass communicable disease.
While we cannot necessarily control the pressures of our modern demands altogether, or skirt the inevitable sufferings of life, there are a wide range of activities we can intentionally weave in that science backs as ways to protect and elevate our mental health:
1. Try therapy. Having a trusted, licensed therapist with expertise in evidence-based modalities such as cognitive-behavioral treatment is worth its weight in gold. You can find a therapist that fits your distinctive needs through your primary care physician, health insurance company, Employee Assistance Program (EAP), word of mouth, and referrals from reputable organizations such as the American Psychological Association or the National Association of Social Workers.
2. Find Community. Isolation can quickly erode mental health. Loneliness is being called “the new smoking”—the health risk of our modern life, where we are more connected and disconnected than ever before. Relationshipsprovide critical protection against loneliness and foster a sense of belonging that we are wired for. Finding people you can safely and openly share with can help curb self-doubt and provide needed support to navigate the joys and complexities of life.
3. Set boundaries. You can’t say yes to everything and still have the time to make mental health a priority. Decide what’s most important, then make the decision to delegate, renegotiate or change your responsibilities. Mental health can quickly erode in the face of too many yeses.
4. Engage in mindful living. Mindfulness activities such as meditation, deep breathing and yoga have all been linked to elevated brain chemistry and lower levels of cortisol. Research shows that when we work to stay in the present moment and avoid the mindless trappings of overwork, “infobesity” (technology and news overload), being stuck ruminating over the past or locked in anticipatory anxiety over the future, we are more likely to thrive.
5. Break up with perfectionism.Research show that perfectionism can quickly spiral into strivings that become unhealthy. While pursuing rigorous goals can be healthy and lead to positive outcomes, expecting perfection and sustaining an inhumane schedule in the long haul can lead us at a greater risk for mental health distress.
6. Take daily break rituals. Carve out small chunks of time where you are focused on doing something that renews your mind, body and soul. It can be singing in the car, brisk walks, deep breathing—anything that provides you respite and momentum along the way.
7. Practice self-care. Prevention is less costly than repair. Research shows that taking the time to uphold Lifestyle Medicine principles such as proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise helps provide the kind of lift that helps us regenerate.
8. Find your fun and funny. Humor is cited as a significant protective factor that contributes towards resilience. When we take life too seriously, we can become cynical, jaded and hyper-critical. Taking time to be playful and silly can help break tensions that can have a negative cumulative effect on our well-being.
9. Avoid consumerism. The promise of retail therapy, being cool or having status can lure us into spending money we have on stuff we don’t need. Research shows that when we move away from the “goods life” to the “good life”—one that focuses on spending our time and money on lasting things like relationships and legacy, we will be more inclined to flourish and thrive.
Your mental health is everything. It’s more important than your grades, your job, status, likes on your feed and any other metrics of success. As the World Health Organization asserts, there is no health without it. How will you protect yours this year?
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