Are you healthy if you never see a doctor unless it hurts bad enough?
“Of course not,” most of us would say. We try to “eat healthy,” whatever that means to us. We watch our weight, go to the gym, schedule annual check-ups, and brush our teeth.
So why don’t we treat our mental health the same way?
In this and the June 6 posts, I’ll discuss five ways I have learned to take care of my mental and emotional health. I’ve learned the hard way that I’m better off doing that than waiting till “it hurts bad enough.” In this post, I’ll look at what mental wellness is, why you should care, and two ways that help me maintain it.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental healthcare provider or expert. These are lessons that I have learned on my own mental wellness journey. If you want or need help, seek professional advice.
Mental Wellness: What Is It?
Let’s talk about physical health for a minute first.
A few years ago, my husband went in for a routine check-up. Dave was an avid cyclist at the time who spent hours each week cycling and in strength training. He hadn’t a spare ounce of fat on him. But based on his age, the doctor ordered some tests, which turned up an artery that was 50% blocked.
As you might imagine, lifestyle changes ensued to improve his physical health.
Like my husband with his physical well-being, you may think that you are doing all you need to take care of your mind and emotions. But something may be building that you’re not even aware of.
Awareness of mental health has grown in the last few years. We’re beginning to hear terms like “neurodivergent” and see messages about fighting the stigma on mental illness more often. Still, a lot of press is given to mental illness. But if we think of mental health as a gauge of how strong and vital our mind and emotions are, mental illness—and I mean diagnosable disorders—is only part of the picture. Mental wellness is the other end of the spectrum.
What about in between?
Yes, we go to a medical doctor if a physical problem gets bad enough—anything from cancer to a broken bone. Does that mean that if we don’t have a weird mole or a take bad fall that we’re in perfect health? No one would say that.
All of us know that physical problems may develop over time. Some are more severe than others, and some may not require medical intervention. We don’t always know which problems our bodies are more susceptible to. Still, we try to avoid them.
So just like you:
- avoid gluten or red meat or sugar,
- lift weights or hit the treadmill, or
- floss and wear sunscreen,
you should take regular precautions to protect your mental wellbeing, whether you have a diagnosable disorder or not. As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Five Ways to Improve Mental Health: The First Two
For today, I’ll look at a way to deal with stress once it occurs and a way to stop it in its tracks before it has a chance to build up.
Stress build-up is a problem many of us face.
We tend to think of stress as something negative, but it isn’t always. Like the friction that keeps tires carrying the car down the road, we need some stress in our lives to keep us moving forward, growing, and adapting. Stress hormones in our body serve a purpose. When we feel threatened, they get us ready to run or fight. Problem is, most things that make us feel threatened nowadays don’t come from physical dangers—at least not the kind we can run from or physically fight. And we don’t usually engage in wild victory dances to celebrate escapes or wins.
So those stress hormones? They build up. And that causes mental and physical problems.
How do you work them out, then? The clue is in the question—work out. Figure out a way to sweat on a regular basis. Get the heart rate up and the muscles engaged. Maybe for you it can include a night out dancing or playing hide-and-seek with the kids or a vigorous cleaning spree. But you have to move. And you have to do it on a regular basis.
Why? Dealing with the issues that cause you stress on a purely mental or emotional basis won’t do the trick.
Check out this example:
The new babysitter runs late. She won’t answer her phone. It’s too late to cancel dinner reservations and your friends are waiting. Double date night gets ruined.
Then you find out that the babysitter was in a car accident that also damaged her phone. So you’re not mad at the babysitter anymore. Your friends understand the problem, talk to the restaurant manager, and make plans to reschedule. Mentally and emotionally? Situation resolved.
But your body doesn’t know that yet.
To work off all that off, your muscles need to move. Your heart needs to pound. And it’s not about working off anger, frustration, or (name the emotion)—it’s about working off the stress behind all of those emotions.
So much for the stress endpoint. But what about the stress starting point?
Labeling makes a huge difference. The vocabulary we use affects how we see the world, how we see ourselves, and how we see our interactions with the world.
Disclaimer: of all the tips in this post and the next, this one is where I feel I am most in the “work-in-progress” stage!
A big label I struggle with is the word “lazy.”
Say I finish a task. I look at the clock and see I have six minutes till the next phone meeting. I don’t need coffee or water. I don’t need to go to the bathroom. I’ve got six whole minutes!
What do I do with them? If I don’t fill that time with something productive, I tend to feel lazy. I feel I should check email, edit whatever writing I’m working on, schedule a social media post, pay a bill, SOMETHING. And I could do any of those things. But I could also choose not to. Maybe I check my personal social media feed instead. Maybe I step outside for some fresh air. Maybe I read a couple of pages of a novel. Or maybe I sit still and do nothing.
It is hard work for me not to chastise myself as “lazy” for doing any of those things in the second group. I struggle to realize that those can be “productive.” Those things can give my brain a chance to refresh. Those activities can help reset my emotions in a way that benefits my work.
On the other hand, what can laziness mean for me that I might not recognize? Well, things like not viewing regular exercise or downtime as having equal value as paying bills, doing household chores, and staying on top of work deadlines.
I know I need downtime and exercise to stay well in body, mind, and soul.
I know that staying well in those areas enables me to do my jobs at home and in the office well.
Still, for me, the path of least resistance entails giving in to the immediacy or pressure of all those other things.
Do you see how the “lazy” label can twist reality? And there are, of course, many other labels we can misuse to our detriment—”productive,” “pretty,” “successful,” “smart”—you get the picture.
For more about my attempts to deal with stress by relabeling “laziness” and ‘productivity,” click here: Rest Don’t Stress: Silencing the Madwoman.
So what is mental wellness? Wellness is at the positive end of the mental health spectrum. But just as with your body, your mind and emotions don’t have to be “sick” to not be “well.” Protecting your mental wellbeing is a maintenance job, and it helps to know how to deal with stress as it occurs and how to stop it before it starts.
Because at the end of the day, our mind, soul, and body are all connected. Taking care of one is taking care of the others.
Want to find out more? My June 6 post continues the topic of How to Improve Mental Wellness? Five Lessons I’ve Learned . . . Check it out here: https://audiencegranted.com/how-to-improve-mental-wellness-five-lessons-ive-learned-2/