One in five people in the US lives with mental illness. That’s over 50 million of us! Chances are, we know someone who struggles with their mental health. Maybe we struggle with ours. No shame there.
Our environment, genetics, and personal history may contribute to this experience. Mental issues range from mild to so impairing that they affect our ability to do daily tasks.
If we need help, mental health professionals should be our first line of defense. But there are additional steps we can take to improve our mental wellness.
Connect with Others
We’re social creatures by nature; we don’t thrive in isolation. We may struggle mentally because we’re lonely. Alternatively, we may withdraw socially when we’re mentally unwell.
When we feel disconnected from others, we may experience:
- Sleep disturbances
- Mental decline
- Reduced thinking and memory abilities
- Physical changes (reduced heart functioning, brain changes, etc.)
- Early deaths
So, we should try to stay connected, even when our mental health is poor. Having people to talk to provides us a support network. We can:
- Schedule regular calls with loved ones
- Join a support group
- Join hobby classes
- See family and friends often
- Keep in contact or rekindle old connections
Gratitude is the act of acknowledging the good in our lives (past and present). This can be physical items (ex. a house) or immaterial things (ex. love).
When we realize that good exists outside of us, we connect to something bigger than ourselves. This may be our community, nature, a higher power, etc.
When we practice gratitude, we value our lives more and optimism grows. Here are some ideas to practice gratitude:
- Keep a gratitude journal. We can write down what we’re thankful for each day. This gives us perspective about the positives in our lives. It also helps us build consistent gratitude habits.
- Practice savoring. Savoring is the act of extending positive feelings. We can recall a happy memory and try to remember the related emotions and environment. We can savor the present by noticing when we’re feeling good, and fully engaging in the moment (the feelings, smells, sounds, etc.)
- Express thanks and gratitude to others. This may be someone we didn’t properly thank in the past (ex. an influential teacher). We can also express gratitude to those we value (ex. friends, family, etc.).
- Create a gratitude collage. We can use pictures, quotes and other items that demonstrate the good in our lives. This serves as a visual reminder of what we’re thankful for.
Build an Arsenal of Coping Skills
Coping skills are learned. Many of us weren’t taught healthy ones from our caregivers. This can make it easy to rely on quick-fix solutions that may be harmful in the long run (ex. alcohol).
Healthy coping skills allow us to successfully rebound from stress, helping us feel better.
This type of coping can be used when we want to eliminate the cause of stress. Ex. if our workplace is toxic and negatively affects our mental health, we may quit.
Here are some ways to practice problem-focused coping:
- Make a to-do list/plan (ex. if our health is poor, we can plan with our doctor about how to improve it)
- Seek professional help
- Set boundaries around behaviors and situations that we’ll tolerate
- Leave harmful situations (like an unhealthy relationship)
Emotions-focused coping helps us deal with the reaction to stress.
Sometimes, we don’t want to change a situation, or it’s outside of our control. Ex. if we get stood up by a date, we may feel sad/embarrassed/angry.
While we can’t change what happened, we can use tools to help soothe our emotions. These coping skills will vary by person. Here are some ways to practice emotions-focused coping:
- Go for a run
- Listen to music
- Think of things that promote happiness
- Play with a pet
- Have coffee with a friend
Proactive coping is a future-oriented strategy. It helps us plan for likely hurdles that may occur.
This helps lessen the impact if a stressor does happen. Ex.:
- If we have ongoing mental health issues, we may plan for low periods (ex. having a support network in place, like our doctor, counselor, pharmacist, etc.).
- We may create an emergency fund to cover expenses should we lose our job, become ill, etc.
- If we have a family history of heart disease, we may see our doctor regularly, exercise daily and eat well.
We all know that exercise is important (even if we don’t do it). It helps keep us strong and healthy. It also boosts mental health. There are a few hypotheses about why exercise boosts mental wellness.
Some believe that exercise distracts us from troubling thoughts, leading to improved mood. Others believe that doing consistently difficult exercise makes us feel capable and confident. And others think that because exercise is often a social activity, the community support improves well-being.
Physically, it’s thought that exercise increases feel-good brain chemicals. Exercise, particularly cardio, may boost mood for up to one day afterwards. It also supports functions that contribute to mental health, like:
- Improved sleep
- Increased energy
- Mental alertness
- Reduced stress
Mental health problems are common, but that doesn’t always mean we’re stuck with them. We can take actionable steps to help ourselves.
Remember, we don’t have to do it alone, either. So, seek support, practice gratitude, learn healthy coping skills, and exercise.
With persistence, we can boost our mental health and start feeling better.