How to Improve Mental Wellness? Five Lessons I’ve Learned . . .

Part 2

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” goes the old maxim attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Do you think about that in the light of your mind or emotions?

Our society recognizes the importance of preventive health for our bodies.

Example: In my previous post in this series, I mentioned that my husband discovered a significant health issue during a routine physical several years ago. I’m grateful he believes in regular checkups—if he hadn’t, he might not have lived long enough for us to meet.

Because he did take steps to maintain and improve his health, like getting regular physicals and once he learned about the issue, changing his diet, his blocked artery cleared up, his cholesterol levels have come down, and he has a much smaller risk of heart attack.

Smart move, you say. So would most people.

Yet, why don’t we give our mental wellness the same priority as our physical health? Why wait for a crisis? In part, it may be because we have less information about how to maintain our mental health.

I’ve thought a lot about mental health in light of my own journey.

As a female with ADHD that was not clinically diagnosed until I was well into adulthood, I’ve had to. As with most people in this type of situation, there were plenty of aggravating factors. One of mine was growing up in a strict, conservative church. It relegated mental health issues to “lack of faith,” and constrained women to a “meek,” “submissive” stereotype. My squirmy, outspoken, strong-willed self with all the anxiety, depression, rejection dysphoria, and guilt complex that often accompany ADHD did NOT do well there. Years of therapy later, I’m still dealing with the fallout. The crises of anxiety and depression I’ve had are inky black spots in my memory, and I don’t ever want to repeat them.

So I’ve learned a few things along the way that help me take charge of my mental well-being. I’d like to pass on some tips that have worked for me. Last month, I shared 2 of 5 tips. Today, I’ll share the other 3.

NOTE: I’m not a mental health professional. I’m simply sharing some tips that have helped me. I cannot emphasize enough: IF YOU ARE STRUGGLING, GET HELP. A quick Google search should provide you with cost-effective resources in your area.

1.      Make space

“Saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else.”

I love this phrase from a pastor (current church, not the one I mentioned above). Still, I struggle with it, especially as someone driven by the twin demons of:

  • “I have to prove I’m not lazy or irresponsible,” and
  • “I can’t miss an opportunity to __________________ (make money/build friendships/eat at that amazing restaurant/fill in the blank).”

Sometimes it’s because I feel I should do X, Y, and Z. Sometimes it’s because I want to do X, Y, and Z. Sometimes it’s a part one, part the other.

For whatever reasons, I try to do it all. Sometimes I even manage to.

And then . . .

I end up exhausted. Emotional. Everything makes me cry or everything makes me mad. I’m short with people I love or have trouble focusing on them like I’d like. Other responsibilities slip through the cracks or turn into an impossible burden.

I’m learning that IF I choose to spend quality time with a friend right now, that may mean I don’t cook the big meal I had planned—I’ll need to freeze or repurpose those ingredients. IF my husband and I decide to get away for the weekend, the house won’t get cleaned that week. (More on this later.)

I’m learning that making those choices can be OK because we’re not human doings. We’re human beings.

To avoid getting consumed in the doing, we need to make space for ourselves to breathe. So sometimes, we need to know when to say no—even to good things. We have to choose some things and let others go.

2.      Let go

If you’re going to say no, you have to let go.

I’m a perfectionist in recovery. As such, I’m learning things like:

  • It doesn’t all have to get done.
  • Not all stuff that gets done, has to be done how I’d do it.
  • Not all the stuff I do has to be perfect.

Not even God makes all the corners all even.

That’s not to say excellence isn’t important or that you should not give certain important things your all. Excellence DOES matter, and you should go all in on some things. Still, you have to 1) prioritize and 2) trust other people in your life.

Doing this can be challenging—let’s take a look.

The voices in our heads

The voices may sound like our mom, our pastor, our first boss, our spouse, or someone else. Maybe it’s our own voice screaming in outsized fear: “This matters! Get it done! Do it right! Don’t quit till it’s done!”

Does it matter? Maybe. But what matters most?

I had to work through this on the issue of having a clean house.

In the year between our marriage and our wedding celebration, my husband and I budgeted for a service to clean our house twice a month. Then after the wedding and as I started a business, we reworked our budget. We decided to drop the service and clean the house ourselves. We discussed chore division. Determined to make it work, I allotted chores by the week and month. I made different charts per each person’s style of visualization. What could go wrong?

A weekend came when we were out of town.

The next weekend we had several appointments.

By the following weekend, my husband had several non-cleaning chores to catch up on, such as bathing the dog.

For THREE WEEKS, few checkmarks appeared on the chore list on the fridge.

On the frantic ledge of, “OH MY GOSH, I LIVE IN A PIGPEN! MY HOUSE IS DESCENDING INTO FILTH AND DECAY!” I talked myself down with the following points:

  • I know my husband will do his chores as he can.
  • Some chores are weekly/bi-weekly. Getting those done once-twice this month is better than not at all.
  • We can play some catch-up next week.
  • We won’t check off every item every week. But we are making a diligent and concerted effort.
  • The house may not get cleaned as often or as deeply as I’d prefer, but it IS getting cleaned!
  • Are there things more important than militant insistence on us wearing ourselves out over the weekend to get it all done? (Like, my relationship with my husband and my energy levels?)
  • And (back to the labelling thing) the weekend is, in part, for resting from work. We need downtime as much as we need a clean house.

You may face different issues. Yet I’ll bet that you too struggle to let go. Because it’s not just about letting go—it’s about learning what to let go of, how much to let go, and one more thing—whom to let go to.

3.      Build a Safe Community

Western culture, especially in America, prizes independence. It’s worked for us in ways. But in others?

Humans are social creatures. Collaborative creatures. We accept that—in some places. For instance, we seek out accountability partners for success in things like diet and exercise.

But wrapping gifts? Dating? Dressing the kids? Writing customer emails?

Not. So. Much.

Take dating. Some people date in a social near-vacuum till a relationship reaches a certain stage. Why?

We don’t trust others to respect our personal preferences and feelings. We have those family members who always criticize. We have that friend who always gets jealous. So we wait to bring our date around. By that time, we can be so invested that we refuse to see any red flags the people who love us might point out.

Similar reasons keep us socially isolated in other areas. We don’t trust people we know, or we don’t want to bother anyone. We don’t think our husband can dress the kids right. We don’t want to bother our coworkers to ask for help on a project.

And so it goes.

Going it alone doesn’t make sense, though. It goes against human nature. We thrive best in community; not just community but SAFE community. (Note that community entails more than one other person. One person cannot bear the burden of being someone else’s entire support network.)

We need people close to us who love us, warts and all. We need people who respect us and value us. We need people who will be there when we need them. Humble, trustworthy people who find the right balance between:

  • accepting us for who we are and
  • holding us accountable when we go against our own values or engage in destructive behaviors.

When you have the right community, you don’t fear asking for help, bringing dates around, venting when you can’t take it anymore, and letting your hair down.

Where does family fit in?

Many people mistake family or people they like to hang out with for community.

Let’s focus on family: families do tend to have a special bond. And they can form part of our community. Still, even if our family loves us to the moon and back, they may not be the safest people. They may be too critical, drama-prone, or intrusive. They may love us a lot, but they may not love us well.

That’s where we supplement our family with a community of safe people who will support us and be there for us in ways our family does not or cannot. This isn’t about cutting family out of our lives—it simply means we have different people in our lives for different reasons.

Let Yourself Lose Control

A lot of what I’ve talked about in this post has to do with relinquishing the need to control everything in our lives. That can be hard to do, but having a support network of safe people makes it easier. With the right people around us, we can feel more confident about 1) making the space we need and 2) letting go. We can feel better about not trying to control everything.

Conclusion: Work to Chill

In this post and the post from May 9th, I’ve covered five tips to improve mental wellbeing. All involve ways to reduce stress:

  1. Move your body.
  2. Relabel concepts such as “lazy” or “pretty” to accurately reflect reality.
  3. Make space for yourself to breathe; don’t try to do it all.
  4. Let go—lower your standards and expectations on things that don’t matter as much and trust others to help you.
  5. Build a safe community of people around you who you can trust to help with whatever life throws at you.

Sound like work? Weird as it sounds, yes, it takes effort to handle stress. Still, the consequences of failing to maintain mental wellness can come with a high cost. Not working for your mental well-being can cause far more work.

Because after all, anything worth having is worth fighting for—even peace of mind.

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