What is mental health?
Mental health is having a balanced and flourishing emotional and psychological sense of wellbeing. Similar to feeling physically fit, feeling mentally fit allows you to notice and enjoy the things in life that bring you joy, and to overcome and bounce back from setbacks and adversities. A key aspect of mental health is having flexibility with both positive and negative emotions and learning how to self-regulate and foster emotional intelligence.
Why is it important?
To me, the importance of talking about mental health is that it is too often ignored and avoided due to stigmas and fears our families or societies have around mental illness. Just like you would not hesitate to call your doctor when you have a cold, we should not hesitate to tell our doctor if our depression or anxiety is so bad it is affecting our personal or professional life.
The secret to wellness is to have a balance in our mental, physical and social or spiritual spheres of life. Ignoring or suffering in one of these spheres affects the others.
We think and feel with our brain, the center of our nervous systems. When we become emotionally unwell our nervous system is affected and all the organs to which it connects to can be affected too. Thus, many people who have problems managing their anxiety can have chronic stomach issues, difficulty breathing from panic attacks, hair loss, skin issues, and muscle tension which can lead to chronic tension headaches, neck pain, or lower back pain. Chronic depression left untreated can also cause low energy and difficulty concentrating which affects memory. At worst, left untreated, depression can lead to thoughts of hopelessness and self-harm.
What can be done to improve mental health?
The good news is that there are many things you can do to improve your mental health and resiliency. The first is to ask yourself: what do you tend to do when you do feel well? Or what have I stopped doing? Many people realize they stopped sticking to a regular sleep/wake schedule. To “deal” with stress they’ve been avoiding it by spending more time on TV, less time at the gym or eating healthy. So basic lifestyle habits have a large effect on our moods.
Problems managing our depression or anxiety don’t just happen overnight. They are the product of a series of thoughts and behaviors that bring you down. For example, you receive some bad news, and instead of going to the gym like you normally do you skip it, this, in turn, leads you to not sleep as well, and so starts this “downward spiral” of behaviors and thinking patterns that make you more and more anxious or depressed.
Slowly get back into doing old routines you did when you were feeling better. Ask a family member or friend to push you to go, get a workout buddy or walking friend to help motivate you to become active once again.
Social media makes it a little harder to connect authentically with others, but it can be a tool for good as well if you use it to reach out to specific people to help you. Remember, your attention span is a limited resource, just like rest, and eating. Spend your attention wisely, ask yourself what you are paying attention to and if it is helping or hindering you. Disconnect from your smartphone and computers and connect with real people. We are biologically driven to connect with others. Just like you can’t solely live off sweets, you must eat a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, your human interactions need to be meatier than social media.
There are many pathways to feeling well, you just have to take a moment to ask others what they use. Expressing gratitude has been shown to help bolster positive thoughts and emotions. You can keep a daily journal about three good things that happened to you, or mentally savor a past/present or future experience while meditating.
Meditation really works! There is no “one way” to meditate. It is not about clearing your mind, meditating is about focusing the mind. My favorite is guided meditation apps that focus on “loving kindness” and “self-compassion”.
Even though there is an issue that needs work, you can still put it to the side and engage in your work or hobbies, don’t sacrifice your enjoyment with them while you work on solving an issue elsewhere.
How someone can get help if they need it?
A key trait of resilient people is that they reach out for help. Fight through the stigma that often exists and let someone you trust know that you are struggling. Don’t forget that your primary care physician wants to oversee your overall health, not just your physical health, so reach out to them.
Don’t be scared of talking to a therapist! Therapy is just a conversation with another human being to maximize your wellness goals. We can also educate you about medications so you can make an informed decision if this is a tool you want to use. It is just one of the many tools at your disposal.
If you are too anxious or depressed to advocate for yourself, ask a loved one to advocate for you. Remember that it will take time to feel well again but so long as you start up on the “upward spiral” you will get well again and learn how to prevent falling back down.
Mental Health Tips!
- Remember that you are more than just your depression, anxiety or any mental health problem you are facing. You are also a human being with many strengths. Get curious and talk or write down what they are and start to flex them more often. A period of depression or anxiety can be a time to truly get down and reflect on what is truly meaningful and purposeful for you. Don’t get stuck in your own head, talk, write, express yourself creatively. Don’t judge yourself too harshly for not being “perfect”, develop a growth mindset and focus and enjoy the process of learning from setbacks.
- Another trick is to make approach goals, instead of avoidance goals, for example instead of saying “I need to stop doing…” it is better to say, “I will start doing…”, the more you want to stop a negative thought the more it persists, the trick is to weaken negative thoughts by focusing on uplifting thoughts and goals.
- My “life hack” to manage stress in LA is to use my 1-hour commute time to listen to uplifting podcasts and audiobooks so that I’m not focused on the drive or traffic.
Responses provided by Dr. Juan Carlos Zuberbuhler, psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Medical Office.