Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Take care of your mental health today!

October 10th was World Mental Health Day.

Many of us put time and effort into our physical health and wellbeing by going to the gym, eating healthy and drinking more water. Benefits of taking care of our bodies is well known and a normal part of most people’s daily practice. We also are aware that the effort we put into our physical health can keep us emotionally and mentally healthy, however is that really enough?

Prioritizing our mental health is still a subject not widely understood by many people. Psychiatric illness and treatment often comes up in public dialogue after a tragic event. The conversation turns to blaming “psychiatric problems” for tragedies, which perpetuates the stigma associated with mental health treatment and psychiatric disorders. It is believed that mental illness is something that happens to “other people” and is something to be ashamed of and embarrassed by. The negative public perception can be a big part of what stops people from getting the help they need. I recognize there are other systemic and access issues which open up a whole different dialogue, however that is a discussion for another day.

If you were to break your leg, you would go to a doctor for treatment. If you had chest pain and shortness of breath, you would see a cardiologist. There is no stigma or taboo about seeing a doctor for a broken bone or a specialist for heart disease. That’s just what we do.

When it comes to anxiety, depression or other psychiatric symptoms we tend to see it differently which leads to lack of diagnosis and treatment. According to the World Health Organization over 800,000 people a year die from suicide and many more attempt it every year.

It does not have to be this way.

Let’s look at the facts about mental health. Here is a link to a poster from the National Alliance for Mental Illness. 1 in 5 adults experience some sort of mental illness, yet more than half of those do not get treatment.

We can do better!

Let’s start by better understanding the warning signs. Here’s a list directly from the NAMI website:
   Excessive worrying or fear
   Feeling excessively sad or low
   Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
   Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
   Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
   Avoiding friends and social activities
   Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
   Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
   Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
   Changes in sex drive
   Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
   Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
   Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
   Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
   Thinking about suicide
   Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
   An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance (mostly in adolescents)
If these seem familiar to you or someone you love, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Most therapists, including myself, offer free phone consultations. You can contact me in Summit & Madison NJ through my website or email. You can also do an internet search of your area using Psychology Today Website and enter zip code in the "find a therapist" section.  NAMI HelpLine is also a wonderful resource to find out what services and supports are available in your community. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger do not wait, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.

Just like we put preventative focus and energy into our physical health and wellness with healthy eating and exercise, it is important to take a look at ways to build resilience and increase our emotional and mental health. This type of self-care can often be overlooked as not important or un-necessary, not unlike historic views on exercise. Going to a gym or for a run was not the norm until more recent history. We now know better about how to take care of our bodies and now it is time to do the same for our emotional and mental wellbeing. Here are some simple ways you may be able to increase positivity and resilience today.

Start with positive intention.
How we start off our day can made a huge difference on how the rest of the day will go. We set the tone first thing in the morning with where we chose to focus our energy. When we begin consuming negative messages through the news or social media it starts us off in a negative emotional space. Try uplifting stories, like, or

Fully engage in fun.
When is the last time you smiled or laughed? Was it today? Are you engaging in activities you enjoy on a regular basis or are you waiting until the weekend or vacation to do something you truly enjoy? How can you add something enjoyable or entertaining to your day, every day? It does not have to be something huge or take up too much of your time. Maybe you could take 20 minutes after work to ride a bike, take a painting class, have coffee with a friend or learn to play guitar. What activities do you do that bring a smile to your face just thinking of them? Make time to enjoy life today.

Connect with others.
When we become overly stressed out or overwhelmed we tend to buckle down and isolate from others. We think we don’t have time and yet that isolation is adding to our stress levels. Positive relationships are one of the five key elements of a life worth living according to Dr. Martin Seligman of UPenn. Are you staying connected to positive relationships in your life in meaningful ways (not just social media)? Make time to connect with a phone call or go out to a movie or an event. I often recommend putting right on your calendar or to do list the names of people you want to call and make an effort to reach out stay connected.

Focus on the Good.
So much of our daily focus and attention is on things that are going wrong or what we believe needs to be fixed that we often miss out on the good and the positive right in front of us. What we focus on often becomes the reality we see. For example, if you were buying a new car you would research a specific make and model. After doing your research you will notice that make and model car everywhere. It seems as if the world has just bought your car. The reality is that your car is as common today as it was before you began to notice it, but your brain is more aware of your interest in the car so you notice it more often. It’s like my 12 year old daughter, she is obsessed with a certain brand of clothes that everybody has. Every time we go out she feels the need to point out every time she notices that particular brand that mommy refuses to spend a fortune on. She is focused on it, so she then recognizes and sees it.  If you want to experience and notice more positive and good in your life, start by consciously looking for it. Spend a few minutes each day taking note of what is good and positive.  Journaling is a great way to do it. There are all kinds of gratitude journals and other tools you can use. The one I use every day is called Fill Your BAG Happy.

Accept yourself as you are today.
This can often be misconstrued as being lazy or not striving in life, but that is not true. Unrealistic expectations and perfectionism can often set people up for failure. So many of the clients I see in my therapy office come in because of a core belief that they need to be perfect and they get derailed and anxious at anything less. Practicing self-compassion and acceptance is not about being complacent and stagnant, but about accepting yourself as you are in order to grow and flourish. Recognizing the fact that being imperfect is a human characteristic all people share can allow you to have more realistic expectations of yourself and frees you to experience growth and insights. I struggle with this, considering myself a “recovering perfectionist," especially years ago as a new mom which ultimately led me to write the book Lose That Mommy Guilt. For those who are looking for resources and books to help with self-care and self-compassion, here is a link to some of my favorites.

Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be easily misunderstood. The definition of mindfulness that most speaks to me is by founder of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) Jon Kabat Zinn “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Simply put, take time to be present in the current moment. You can start by practicing daily activities mindfully, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth and paying attention to each aspect of the task. For example, when in the shower, have you ever had the experience where you can’t remember if you used the conditioner or not? You were in automatic pilot mode and your mind was elsewhere. Next time, try paying attention to what you are feeling, seeing, smelling and hearing as you take a shower. What is the temperature of the water feel like? What about the smell of the soap? What changes do you hear as the water goes over different areas of your body or shower wall?  When you start to think about other things (which you will) gently and non-judgmentally bring your focus back to the shower experience.

If you would like to learn more about mindfulness, there are some really great basic apps you can try that can guide you through daily practice. I personally use insight timer every day. I highly recommend calm, headspace or 10%happier for beginners. Click here to get links to these another apps you may find helpful.

My hope today is that this post gave you some self-care ideas (here's a way to keep track) and got you thinking differently about the importance of taking care of your mental health today!