I realized halfway through the month that May is mental health awareness month. Funny, I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health lately, specifically, my own. And yes, as a therapist, besides engaging in the well-being of others, I spend a lot of my free time contemplating, reading about and listening to podcasts that are all about mental health and well-being. I find the whole topic fascinating, relevant and sometimes frustratingly elusive. The truth as I see it is that our overall well-being is deeply and intrinsically tied to our mental health and yet, we often get so sidetracked with distractions we easily lose sight of what it takes to be good. Or, we are gobsmacked with some event that throws us a curve ball and we are faced with our own mortality, suffering and misery.
I’d first like to make it clear that I wholeheartedly reject the idea that we need to have a Mental Health Awareness Month. What about the other 11 months of the year?! Every DAY needs to begin with mental health awareness. I understand the simplicity of setting a month aside to think about it and/or take action, but that’s like saying let’s only think about racism during Black History Month and then, feeling virtuous and educated, we can put it aside for a year. Highlighting issues is important. Internalizing new values, habits, beliefs, and attitudes is key.
Today’s post is really about encouraging everyone to think about your own mental health every single day of your life, about developing new habits and creating a baseline of well-being that sustains you through thick and thin. What we all know as truth is that life is going to happen to each and every one of us. And life is like the Greek god Poseidon: restless, tempestuous, unpredictable. Managing our mental health is akin to having a survival kit when traveling on unknown roads: be prepared.
Let’s start with the three basic pillars of health: nutrition, sleep and exercise. As a reminder, physical and mental well-being are completely integrated. You don’t need to be a star athlete or be on a keto/paleo/vegan/fill-in-the-blank diet to achieve health. You need to be mindful. That’s it. Be mindful. Ask yourself regularly, “how am I doing with the basics of my life?” And so, I’ve decided to do a 2-part deep dive into mental health, starting with these basics. In Part 2 we’ll explore some other, more nuanced landscapes of mental health.
Nutrition. Whatever way in which you like to eat, these are the basic rules:
- eat what’s in season
- buy locally grown food
- learn how to cook
- find a way for food to bring you joy
- the standard American diet (SAD for short) is not your friend
- be mindful about what you eat, when you eat, how you eat, why you eat
- consider food as something you have a relationship with
- notice how different foods make you feel
- good fat is good for you, sugar is not
- learn how to be hungry
Exercise. Any form of movement counts as exercise. Movement needs to bring you joy, so if you’re the kind of person that hates exercise, find a way to move that you look forward to. Hard as it is, try not to attach exercise to appearance. Get to know your body, what feels good, what hurts, what moves, what’s stuck. Our mental health is deeply attached to our physical well-being. Pain makes me grumpy. If you’re in physical pain, get help. There are amazing people in the world who can see things that are invisible to us. Find your person. And find your movement.
- be outdoors several days a week
- remember your body hurts more when it doesn’t move
- invest in simple equipment to do weird stuff at home
- there’s always time to do a 10 minute workout on YouTube
Sleep. This is a tough one. Sleep is vital for brain health, clarity, memory, focus. It’s the number one complaint I hear in my practice, and is my number one complaint too. Lack of sleep causes depression, irritability, attention-deficit, car-accidents, addictions. It’s really hard to get the proper amount of sleep, which is about 8 hours. I’m not going to write about sleep as if I’m an expert, but I am going to say that there are some basic principles to follow, and after that, you can turn to sleep expert Matthew Walker, PhD and check out his website http://sleepdiplomat.com/.
- provide yourself the opportunity to sleep 8 hours (don’t go to bed so late that you don’t even have the chance)
- don’t have electronics in the bedroom, including a TV
- what you eat and drink before sleep is a big deal
- remember that the first 2 pillars have a huge impact on sleep
- our bodies and brains love consistency so a consistent bedtime is vital
- learn some techniques to help you if you have trouble falling asleep or if you wake in the middle of the night. Counting backwards from 1000, listening to recorded rainfall, learning breathing techniques are all examples.
Mindfulness about how we eat, move and rest are the essentials. In Part 2, I’ll get a bit more personal about my own mental health program and get into some ideas about ways to deepen your connection to yourself so you can live your best life.
People only choose life and then welcome whatever means are offered to them in order to have it.My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD