My Top 10 Ways to Positively Affect Mental Health
October 10th is World Mental Health Day. In light of the last few years (and our general human condition), I find mental health has been more openly discussed, but we have a long way to go before it’s truly destigmatized. Here are the top ten ways I have positively affected my mental health and the little habits I integrate to be as healthy as possible.
1. Practice Self-Compassion
One of the most powerful ways I have affected my mental health is by practicing self-compassion. I am always working to be gentle with myself. This has involved meditation practices, readings, and unpacking the idea of loving-kindness towards oneself and others. My favorite teacher in this realm is Pema Chödrön. She shares:
The Buddhist term bodhicitta means completely open heart and mind. “Citta” is translated as heart or mind; “bodhi” means awake.
The cultivation of the noble heart and mind of bodhicitta is a personal journey. The very life we have is our working basis; the very life we have is our journey to enlightenment. Enlightenment is not something we’re going to achieve after we follow the instructions, and then get it right. In fact when it comes to awakening the heart and mind, you can’t “get it right.”
On this journey we’re moving toward that which is not so certain, that which cannot be tied down, that which is not habitual and fixed. We’re moving toward a whole new way of thinking and feeling, a flexible and open way of perceiving reality that is not based on certainty and security. This new way of perceiving is based on connecting with the living energetic quality of ourselves and everything else. Bodhicitta is our means of tapping into this awakened energy and we can start by tapping into our emotions. We can start by connecting very directly with what we already have.
Bodhicitta is particularly available to us when we feel good heart; when we feel gratitude, appreciation or love in any form whatsoever. In any moment of tenderness or happiness, bodhicitta is always here. If we begin to acknowledge these moments and cherish them, if we begin to realize how precious they are, then no matter how fleeting and tiny this good heart may seem, it will gradually, at its own speed, expand. Our capacity to love is an unstoppable essence that when nurtured can expand without limit.— Pema Chödrön
2. Meditation Practice
It has been my goal to meditate once per day, even if it is for 1 minute. Some days, I have succeeded. Others, I have not. I have noticed meditation is one of my primary self-care practices and I’m best to do it immediately after waking. My personality is one that demands constant energy expenditure. Meditation allows me to be present with my thoughts and current state of mind before jumping into the day. I’ve also played with meditation at night and during lunch breaks.
The most important lesson about meditation is there is no wrong way to do it and the goal is NOT to feel good. Many beginners in meditation complain their mind does not stop. Some meditation practices do not ask the mind to be silent, but rather us to be observers of the thoughts that cross our minds. As Pema Chödrön says, we can learn to “let our thoughts “come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather.”
My current favorite way to meditate is using the Insight Timer app, where I follow various teachers and use the silent timer option. Want to be my friend on Insight Timer and meditate with me? Click here, my friend — best thing is it’s TOTALLY FREE.
3. Practicing Boundaries
I first started learning about boundaries around 2018 after a difficult relationship ended and I realized many of my past relationships had broken boundaries. I have been reclaiming my own power and stepping into confidence with setting boundaries at home, work, and in relationships. The most impactful book on this topic is Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Of note, this book has a Christian foundation with many Bible verses.
Every night before eating, I pray over my food. I thank God for the day, ask for support in areas of need, and express at least one thing I am grateful for. I started this practice about a year ago with my partner, Justin. We find faith to be important in our home and having a relationship with God has strengthened my mental health by feeling supported, loved, and guided.
Movement is critical to my mental health. I have found various ways to exercise over the last year, especially after my back injury in September 2021. While I love going to the gym and doing a HIIT workout, I have realized simply moving my body by stretching or going on a walk are critical in my daily self-care routine. I listen to my body and do what I need. I am grateful there are so many resources on YouTube for home workouts and simple ways to meet my needs.
Exercise can look so many different ways! Yoga, tai chi, walking, running, dancing, lifting weights, hiking, biking, kayaking, rowing, basketball, baseball, rock climbing, interval training, HIIT workouts, Peloton riding, barre, and MORE. Choose what feels good for YOU.
6. Wake Up Light
I am a pretty wicked snoozer. When I was struggling with depression from late 2021 to 2022, I purchased a Philips Hue Lightbulb and put it in a bedside lamp. This Bluetooth light has over 16,000,000 (YES THAT IS 16 MILLION) colors to choose from — including blue to warm white lights. There’s ALSO a setting to gradually wake up, with progressive brightening to simulate a sunrise. For a while, I was struggling to simply get out of bed in the morning. Setting this lamp helped me to get out of bed a little easier and wake up naturally. Now, I continue using it for earlier mornings to help brighten the day and make it easier to get out of bed.
The absolute most profoundly positive impact on my mental health has been working with my counselor. I have been blessed to work with the same woman for a number of years in order to address ongoing challenges in life. Even when I feel I don’t need to see my therapist, I have told this individual they’re like a vitamin for me — even when I don’t THINK I need them, it’s still good for me.
Of course, therapy isn’t always easy. It tends to stir up a lot of difficult memories and emotions. There is certainly a time and place for healing and knowing/trusting yourself and your needs is integral to the process of healing. While I feel everyone can benefit from seeing a therapist, it does require finding the RIGHT therapist and being open-minded and honest — with ourselves and the provider.
If you’re looking for a therapist, I suggest starting on Psychology Today and finding one in your insurance to lessen the financial burden. (That being said, I’ve paid out of pocket for most of my services, but it’s been VERY worth it!) I would also recommend calling a few and catching the vibe on the phone with the individual. It’s very important you trust your therapist and have a good connection. Just like dating, it may take a few sessions to know if this therapist is the right fit for you. There are also many virtual options at this time, thanks to COVID!
If it feels difficult, it’s going to be okay. Everything is temporary and you CAN do hard things. If you have any questions, I am happy to answer them. I certainly plan to share more on this in the future.
8. Limit My Caffeine and Coffee Intake
I LOVE coffee. The smell, the taste, all the little coffee cafes. GAH, SWOON. Yet, I realized a daily intake of caffeine in the form of coffee was not serving my mental and physical health. The jittery energy was making me feel more anxious than anything, so now I drink decaf coffee, matcha, or tea in the morning. My current favorite way to start my day is with warm lemon tea + honey!
Ever since high school, I have kept a relatively consistent journal. There have been times journaling negatively impacted my mental health because I felt all this pressure to update my journal on everything going on. Anyone else? Just me? Hah.
Without the pressure of needing to write every day, I use journaling as another way to have conversations with myself. I write to release, to understand, to delve deeper. I write to explore my dreams — the ones I had last night, the ones I have for the future. I write to unpack and repack.
Writing is healing for me but can be exhausting for others. You don’t NEED to journal. But if you do, I’m with you.
If you had told me 5 years ago I’d one day take medication for depression, I would have been awfully confused. Yet, here I am in 2022, a 33-year-old woman who is quite optimistic… and I am taking medication for depression.
The story is far longer than I could put in this post, but suffice it to say — even happy people feel depressed. Even optimistic people can benefit from therapy and medication. I never truly experienced resistance to taking medication for the depression I’ve experienced as I fully trust my healthcare providers. I also knew something was terribly wrong and I was losing control of my emotions. I was drifting far away from my center of being — my true self. I knew I needed help. BIG time. It was impacting my daily life, work, energy, love, relationships, and health. Physically, mentally, emotionally.
I am in NO WAY recommending you ask your doctor for medication if you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or dealing with any other mental health challenges. What I AM SAYING is that it’s OKAY to say you’re taking medication. It’s OKAY if you are. You are NOT weak because of this. It’s also OKAY to ASK your doctor about medication if you think it’s something you need in your corner while you’re healing. Most of the time, medication is prescribed by a psychiatrist (vs. psychologist), but some Primary Care Providers can prescribe medication as well.
At my most recent visit with my psychiatrist, I asked about weaning off my anti-depression medication. They recommended we “stay the course” for a little longer. A part of me felt this meant I’d failed. I haven’t healed enough. I’m not strong enough. Yet, none of this is true. I am stronger for doing what is best for me at this stage in my life. I am supported, I am loved, and I am worthy of healing.
Some people would stigmatize me for taking medication. I’ve had people ask me about my “disease” when referring to depression. I had another person think I was in a mental health institution because I publicly shared I was seeing a counselor. Of course, if I needed to be in an institution, I would be happy to be there getting the care I need.
What I’m saying is — MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS. YOUR mental health matters. Some people in your life will judge you and challenge you. These are not the people who you hold close and confide in, but I know there are others who have been through what you’re feeling. You are not alone. Not now, not ever.
You are not alone.
One more time.
If you are concerned about your mental health, please reach out to a healthcare provider. Call a friend or family member you trust. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, there is ALWAYS help 24/7 on the suicide and crisis line. You can now dial 988 — the new three-digit dialing code (as of 7/16/22) that will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.