May 17, 2021
May is Mental Health Awareness Month which is recognized across the country to provide support and education about mental health. This is an opportunity to see where we are with our mental health, and make necessary changes where we can to move toward feeling mentally healthy.
Mental health is a major part of our overall health and is just as important as our physical health and in many cases, problems with our physical health often start with mental health problems. And the reverse is also true. Physical and mental health work together and cannot be separated. Mental health is worthy of our attention, each and every day.
There are probably just as many definitions of mental health as there are people. The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.
However, sometimes there are barriers that prevent us from achieving good mental health. We all have a genetic susceptibility to certain illnesses and can probably identify certain diseases running in our own family such as heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes. The same is true for mental illnesses. If a parent had a physical or mental illness, it doesn’t mean we will automatically have that illness but we are more susceptible. Add life stressors such as effects of childhood trauma, poverty, discrimination, disabilities, financial strain, family and social rejection, substance abuse, grief, and mental health problems can begin to develop.
If our inner and external resources are unable to cope with these problems, we may experience a mental illness. But many illnesses can be managed by making lifestyle changes. Here are a few changes you can make now, to help your own mental health:
- Talk to someone. Reach out to a trusted person and let them know what you’re experiencing. The person may be dealing with the same issue, or has in the past and can offer support or advice. If you don’t have a trusted person in your life, reach out to a mental health professional who can offer support and guidance in helping you cope with your issue.
- Eat as nutritiously as possible. There is a powerful connection between the brain and the gut. If you improve your diet, you may just see an improvement in your mental health. The reverse is also true.
- Get some exercise every day. Set reasonable goals here. Start with a walk every day for 15 minutes. Notice how you feel afterward and extend it from there. Stretch your body daily. Stretching is a good way to get the blood flowing which increases circulation to your muscles and your brain. When you brain has more blood flow it helps to clear your mind and improve your mood.
- Have a daily routine. This can give us control over our lives and ease our minds because we will know what to expect each day. Avoid a lot of unstructured time in your day. It can be a playground for worry and anxiety.
- Join a group. Maybe it’s a support group. Maybe it’s a group who share the same hobbies. Social connection is vital for good mental health. Learn more about support groups here.
- Think about creating space in your life. Space to just breathe, space to consider your options in a situation, space for time alone, space to pray/meditate, space for nature etc. We don’t have to rush through our days mindlessly. There IS time for this. Begin with 5 minutes of just sitting and breathing and work from there.
- Get enough sleep. Lack of good quality sleep can be related to all sorts of health problems. There are several things one can do to prepare for sleep and how to handle waking frequently at night. This is called sleep hygiene. Visit sleepeducation.org for more information.
- Practice self-compassion. We are human beings and we make mistakes. Those mistakes are opportunities for growth if we choose to see it this way. Being self-critical can definitely contribute to depression and anxiety. For additional information on the benefits of self-compassion, visit the Self-Compassion page by Dr. Kristin Neff.
- Discover an interest or hobby. There are many health benefits to having a hobby. Some people ask me how they find out what they are interested in. Well, the answer is within your own reach. Talk to others about what interests them. Try new things. Learn a new skill. Your answers will come to you as you explore new ideas and try new things. See this article from the New York Times about the benefits of having a hobby.
- These are just a few ideas. You are the author of your own life and probably have your own ideas about what good mental health means to you. I encourage you to develop your own plan to keep yourself mentally healthy. Begin to make small changes each day and you just might see a big difference in the long run!
If you find that you are feeling depressed, anxious, hopeless, are socially isolated, not sleeping well, loss of appetite or feeling distressed by your thoughts, please reach out to us in the StayWell Behavioral Health Department. We have several clinicians who are ready and willing to help. Simply call 203-756-8021 Ext. 3529.
The suggestions in this article are meant to be educational in nature. They do not substitute for a visit with your doctor or mental health professional.
Janet Peterson, LCSW
Associate Director of Behavioral Health
StayWell Health Center