Mental Health Extends Beyond a Diagnosis
Mental health is a priority for everyone, whether or not a diagnosis is present. “Mental Health” encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.
Many mental health professionals expand this definition to include the interaction of our physical and spiritual health with overall well-being as well.
As a mental health counselor, I think about mental health from a biopsychosocial perspective. This means that our mental health is shaped by a bi-directional relationship between our inborn traits, and the context of the unique environments, relationships and events in our lives.
One in 5 Americans is affected by mental health conditions. However, everyone experiences seasons of struggle when their mental health is at risk.
At different points in life, vulnerabilities in either our biological makeup or distress in our environment and relationships (or a combination of both) can result in strain on our mental health.
Mental health warning signs may appear that do not meet criteria for a diagnosis, but still warrant attention and care, because your mental health is a priority.
“MAKE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH A PRIORITY!”
When we don’t attend to signs of distress, we put our mental and physical health at risk. A build-up of emotional stress could result in clinically significant symptoms of both mental and physical illness, like ignoring discomfort in your abdomen until a painful ulcer develops.
While mental health is often brought up in a problem-focused context, it’s important to take a preventative approach to mental health concerns.
Just as preventative actions are recommended for medical conditions, similar steps can be taken by individuals to address mental health concerns before seasons of stress exacerbate symptoms.
Perhaps you’ve felt on edge for weeks and haven’t taken time to identify why and to determine what you need to do to are for yourself. Most of us aren’t taught how to do this, and our instinct is often to stay in survival mode in times of stress.
To make your mental health a priority, having regular check-ins with your emotional well-being and routine habits that promote active coping can be the difference between surviving or thriving.
So, how can you make your mental health a priority?
How Can You Make Your Mental Health a Priority?
We make mental health a priority when we intentionally care for the physical, emotional, cognitive, relational, and spiritual dimensions of our lives.
One of my favorite treatment models is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) because it teaches practical skills to improve these parts of our lives. DBT is designed to help individuals build skills to cope with difficult emotions, improve relationships, and create a life worth living.
The DBT model for long-term emotional well-being is ABC PLEASE.
Accumulating Positive Experiences
PhysicaL Illness (Treat)
Avoid Mood-Altering Drugs
Whether you are navigating stressful circumstances, or are interested in building long-term skills to care for your mental health, the following is a guide based on the ABC PLEASE model to help establish practices to make your mental health a priority.
Create Space for Reflection and Awareness
At the end of a busy day, we might feel worn down or worried. Instinct is often to grab a bite to eat and binge-watch The Office until we’re ready to fall asleep.
I’m not suggesting you give up your binge-watch entirely, but instead set aside 5-10 minutes each day to notice how you are feeling in mind and body.
Think back on which events of the day led up to how you are feeling in the present. Get curious about your cognitive and emotional responses to everyday events as well as how you acted on those thoughts and feelings.
Over time, this habit can create awareness of the patterns that shape your response to everyday situations, and are in turn, shaping your life.
This practice also creates opportunities to recognize when you might be struggling and can prevent a build-up of emotion from catching you off-guard. Perhaps you’ll notice something you want to change and have the chance to be intentional about your next steps.
Journaling or making lists are great options for reflecting on your day. One of my favorite practices for reflection is Brené Brown’s Rising Strong model: Reckoning, Rumble, and Revolution.
If you want to take a deep dive into this process, her book, Rising Strong, (affiliate link) walks individuals through the process to recognize their stories (reckoning), wrestle with them (rumble), and then use this awareness to write a new ending (revolution).
Mindfulness—the practice of noticing and participating in the present moment—is the foundation for awareness and reflection.
When we practice mindfulness, we strengthen pathways in the brain that help us take in and respond to information intentionally rather than reactively.
You can practice mindfulness simply by using all of your senses to observe and take in the present moment, without judging. Learn more about mindfulness and building a mindfulness practice here.
As you reflect on habits and patterns, identify situations that typically lead to emotional stress. Maybe it’s a family event or the end of the fiscal year. The holidays are a prime example of a season associated with added emotional and relational stress.
Think through what challenges you may face, decide in advance how you can cope with the situation, and rehearse coping strategies in your mind prior to that event.
Remember that during these times your mental health should be a priority to prevent a season of stress from becoming a prolonged state of being. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself and put your needs first.
A lack (or abundance) of sleep creates vulnerability to health conditions, including reduced ability to regulate mood and cope with stress.
Sleep is an important time for learning, memory, and emotional processing. When we don’t sleep well, our performance in work and school can be comprised.
Experts recommend an average of 7 hours of sleep a night. Place a priority on getting an amount of sleep that leaves you feeling well-rested. In general, we sleep better when we go to bed and wake up around the same time each day, and put down our screens at least one hour before bedtime.
Move Your Body
Even though we complain about going to the gym, most people admit to feeling a boost of energy and positive emotions after a workout. Regular exercise is the most accessible mood regulation tool we have.
Thanks to the release of dopamine that comes with exercise, moving our bodies every day improves our mood and reduces stress. Even during a busy season of life, doing something small to move your body every day can make a difference.
Reward Yourself with Positive Experiences
When we engage in activities we love and value, it adds a sense of meaning and joy to our lives. Planning and scheduling positive experiences into our routines is another proven way to boost mood.
When life’s demands put a strain on our time and energy, it can be hard to set aside time for things that just seem to be for fun.
However, these experiences are vital for a healthy, balanced life. To double the impact, actively practice gratitude when you have the opportunity to participate in positive activities.
Positive experiences that include learning new skills—like training for a race or taking a dance class – can increase a sense of mastery and confidence. New experiences, even as simple as trying a new cuisine, are also shown to be rewarding for our brain.
Consider setting aside time in your schedule for things that truly “fill your bucket” and align with your values–whether that’s going to an art gallery to support local art or taking a bubble bath–and you’ll find that prioritizing your mental health can be delightful.
The most striking finding from the Harvard Longitudinal study, following the well-being of individuals for 80 years, is that the quality of our relationships contributes to our mental and physical well-being more so than our genes.
Warm and strong relationships can serve as a buffer against physical disease and emotional pain, even when inevitable difficulties arise.
Time invested in connecting with others will be a benefit to the health of both parties (as will making sure some of that time is spent in person in lieu of screens).
One Step at a Time
When it comes to prioritizing your mental health, creating new patterns and routines takes time and is built on small, consistent changes. Think progress, not perfection.Pick one thing you can do today to make your mental health a priority, and build from there.
As you make a practice of self-care, you will enjoy the benefits not only of preventing burnout and the negative impact of chronic stress, but also improved mood and mindset in the everyday.