Everybody knows that we are supposed to exercise. We know that our diet should contain fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein-rich foods in order to maintain good physical health. Many of us make efforts to follow this advice, and find that when we do, we feel pretty good!
There is no better teacher than our own experience. If we eat well and feel good, and make that connection between the two, then we are likely to go on eating well! Though we may fall into bad habits, we can recognize them as such and eventually, when ready, resume healthier eating. We also know what can happen if we fail to treat our bodies right; we can develop chronic problems like diabetes, increase the likelihood of heart disease, injury, obesity, and so on. People talk about this stuff.
It is a little bit different with mental health. People find it easy to talk about their aging parents’ health problems, their toddler’s eating issues, even the newly adopted vegan diet of former President Clinton. However, it is a different beast when it comes to mental and emotional health topics. It is hard for people to admit to having an Internet addiction, that their spouse is struggling with debilitating depression, or that their child is highly anxious and experiences panic attacks several times a week. Clearly there is still shame and stigma associated with these types of problems.
Though it is still an uneasy topic for discussion, nearly 30 percent of U.S. adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Increasing numbers of children are being diagnosed with mental illnesses. It might be time to make mental and emotional well-being a priority.
We are all aware of basic things that we can do to keep our bodies physically healthy. What if everyone could develop awareness of some basic actions we can take to keep our mental and emotional health in balance? Imagine that we were reminded of what those things are, and reminded daily by the media. Despite the myth that mental health problems are merely the result of a “chemical imbalance,” our own habits, choices, and actions have an enormous impact on mental health.
Many of the same practices will enhance physical and mental well-being at the same time. Regular vigorous exercise has proven to be as effective as medication in treating depression and ADHD. Eating nutritious, fresh, unprocessed foods keeps our brains functioning better than junk food; for example, certain nutrients are required for the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Other strategies can help keep minds healthy as well. One way to enhance mental well-being is to make time for introspection. Setting aside digital devices and finding a few minutes each day for reflection can make a difference in well-being. Meditation, journaling, and contemplative prayer are a few different avenues that can allow for increased self-awareness and focus that can enhance lives and relationships.
“Tuning in” to the self can bring us familiarity with habitual thoughts and emotional states. It can help us realize when we are overextended, and what needs to be prioritized differently. When we pause to consider these things on a regular basis, it helps us to remember what is important. Otherwise, it can feel like living on autopilot. Introspection and reflection can help shape the direction of our lives and allow us to better live according to our values and achieve our goals.
Becoming more mindful consumers of media is another way to safeguard mental and emotional well-being. It is also arguably one of the most important tasks we face in the digital age. Spending several hours each day consuming media is the new normal. We can become much more mindful of what we allow to enter our consciousness. For parents of young children in particular, there needs to be an awareness of what messages they are receiving from games, music, and TV programs.
Many people of all ages are viewing programs, reading books, and listening to talk shows and podcasts that nurture such negative states as anger, fear, violence, jealousy, despair, and even delusion. Sometimes people acknowledge that certain programs are a “guilty pleasure.” If that is the case, it may be worth experimenting. Why not go without that guilt and see what other types of pleasures can be found that are more in agreement with values?
Finally, we can follow the advice of the positive psychologists and move toward a more fulfilling life by nurturing strengths. Use the skills, interests, and aptitudes that you possess, develop them, and share them. This will, according to a respectable body of research, help us move toward greater self-efficacy and a life with greater sense of meaning and purpose. When people are engaged and absorbed in an activity that is seen as contributing to something larger than the self, they feel that life is worth living. This is as true for believers as non-believers.
For many people, spirituality imbues life with this meaningfulness. Having a sense of participating in a church community, or being a part of God’s plan or fulfilling one’s destiny can be deeply satisfying. Interestingly, studies have linked religious belief and attendance in services to better coping skills, decreased anxiety, and better quality of life for men and women. Whether religious or not, viewing life as meaningful can be a powerful tool in maintaining mental health.
By making time for introspection, consuming media more mindfully, and pursuing a life with meaning and purpose, we are taking good care of our minds and moods. What are some other helpful behaviors or habits that serve the same purpose? I’d love to know what readers think.