May is Mental Health Awareness month, and a great time to reassess our self-care practices. But before we can do that, it’s important to clarify what, actually, mental health refers to. Many people think mental health and mental illness are the same thing, which is misleading. Mental illness, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) refers to a clinically diagnosable disorder, marked by specific criteria largely based on an impairment in functioning. Not everyone will experience mental illness throughout their lifetime, but mental health is inherent to who we are. Mental health refers to our overall emotional wellbeing, and encompasses our emotions, thoughts, feelings, how we manage stress and hardship, and how we interact with the world around us.
Taking care of our physical health is part of our daily discourse – how to tend to our heart, our skin, our teeth. We accept that sickness and injury are part of life, and we visit the doctor when we feel unwell. We also know that feeling unwell from time to time does not necessarily mean we have a serious illness or disease.
Taking care of our mental health is somehow viewed separately from our physical being, despite the abundance of evidence linking the two. It is unfortunate that stigma around seeking mental health treatment still exists, since everybody experiences times in their lives when they feel overwhelmed, stressed, or unhappy. Just as we can feel unwell without having a serious physical illness, our mental health can suffer regardless of whether we have a clinical disorder. Maintaining good mental health and self care practices means being proactive about understanding our emotions, finding healthy ways to cope under stress, engaging in positive relationships with ourselves and others, and addressing concerns before they escalate.
In the spirit of mental health awareness month, here are 3 easy, “Do it your way” suggestions for self care.
Sometimes the hardship we face is personal and private. Other times, we as a society experience a sense of collective hardship, or as some are calling it, collective trauma.
All of us are indirectly, if not directly, impacted by the current tension of our political climate, fears about the future, economic uncertainty, natural disasters, and mass violence. When things happen that are outside our control, it is natural to feel a sense of helplessness. One way to combat this is to get involved in a cause you support. Attending a local march, donating money, and/or volunteering your time are all ways to channel your frustration into action. It is also a great opportunity to meet people with similar interests and values and harness a sense of community.
Technology is now a fact of life, as is our subsequent reliance on it; Americans spend upwards of 5 hours each day on our cell phones. While technology is a great way to connect with long distance loved ones, it might be harming our face to face interactions more than we realize. One study found that the mere presence of a cell phone during conversation has a negative impact on closeness, connection, and quality of conversation with others.
Sherry Turkle makes a similar argument in her Ted Talk, Connected but Alone. She describes technology as providing us with “the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy”. I love this quote because I think it so perfectly captures the inherent dilemma in our digital relationships. Technology provides a platform for connection, but it is not able to provide us with the same quality of connection that face to face interactions do. Maintaining relationships takes effort and coordination, but it’s worth it- positive social relationships have been shown to reduce rates of anxiety and depression, raise self esteem, and generally improve our physical and emotional wellbeing. Keep this in mind when spending time with loved ones. Do your best to put down your devices and truly engage with each other. Be mindful of keeping your attention on the person you’re with or the activity you’re doing together. This will benefit you, as well as the relationship you are nurturing.
There is no shortage of advice about what you should be doing for your mind, your health, and your body. It is easy to get lost in a sea of information, but that abundance is only helpful if you take the time to experiment with what makes you tick. Part of caring for your mental health is sorting through general self-care practices and applying the ones that are right for you. Exercise is a good example. We know that exercise is an important component of addressing our mental health- but which type of exercise is right for you? Are you taking a specific fitness class because you think you’re supposed to, or because it feels best for your body? We often operate in autopilot mode, doing things without reflecting on how they actually make us feel. Check in with yourself and your needs, and even more specifically, how those needs might differ depending on outside factors, such as your mood or stress levels. Curiosity and experimentation will help you find a practice you’re more likely to stick with.
Alison Stone, LCSW is an integrative psychotherapist in New York City. You can find more information about her practice at www.AlisonStoneTherapy.com