Wednesday, 18 May 2016
What does it mean to have a ‘good mental health’?
This week is World Mental Health Awareness Week. I have decided to write this short blog to make a small contribution.
It is sometimes hard to understand mental health. What is it? What does it mean? Sadly, most of us did not get taught how to look after our mental health when we were children. We might have been taught to eat all our vegetables and to brush our teeth every day. We might have had a gentle kiss from our parents if we fell off a bike and bruised our knees. But we don’t often get taught how to live with our emotions, how to understand them and how to regulate them. Emotional wounds are the bruises that don’t get seen nor soothed. If we got an emotional bruise we might carry it for a long time.
Often, I see clients who come to me because their relationship with their spouse is not going well. They think it is all because of their spouse. Blaming is one way to protect ourselves. However, when they realise that some of the hurt is actually not about the here and now but about an old wound (often a wound from childhood) a lot of my clients are shocked – because they were not even conscious of the wound existing – and then tears roll down their cheeks – because, finally, the bruise is being seen.
Emotional wounding does not only occur because of parents’ mistake. It also happens when life circumstances affect the child’s sensitivity. Some of the more subtle wounds I have heard are:
‘I was the only non-white pupil in my primary school. I knew that I wasn’t like the others then’
‘I wanted to play with Barbies but all the other boys wanted to play with soldiers. I knew something was wrong’
‘My maths teacher told me that I would not amount to anything when I failed the test’
‘We moved house when I was young and I lost all my friends. It was hard to make new friends in the new school’
‘I saw my grandfather die and my mother was depressed afterwards’
When something happens when we are young, we don’t know much about the world so it is hard for us to rationalise, however we are deeply sensitive to our internal world. So, children tend to say to themselves:
‘My mother is sad, it must be my fault. She doesn’t love me anymore’
‘My maths teacher doesn’t like me because I’m bad’
‘I lost of my home and my friends. I’m really sad but my parents tell me I should be happy. There is something wrong with me’
‘I am wrong for wanting to play Barbies’
‘I look different from anyone else, I don’t fit in’
These messages tend to enter our psyche rapidly because we have no other information about the world to compare them to. The messages become core messages so much so that we then carry them all our lives and we make decisions based on them, without being consciously aware of them. Sometimes it is in therapy that these core messages get addressed for the first time.
When we carry these core messages into adulthood they transform into shame ‘I am wrong’, ‘I am bad’. Or they transform into a low sense of self ‘I am not good enough’. These messages can be unconscious but they pull the emotional strings frequently and can present difficulties in the here and now adult life.
Here are my 10 tips to regulate emotions and to look after your mental health.
Looking after your mental health is just as important as looking after your physical health. Some people make the mistake in thinking that if they do a little bit of therapy, they will ‘get it’ and then be fine forever. But this is not so. Looking after your mental health is the same process as looking after your physical health. For example, you wouldn’t think that eating one broccoli a year would constitute a healthy diet. Or going to the gym once in six months would mean a good fitness regime.
It is the same with mental health. Looking after your mental health requires daily conscious decisions. Every day you make the decision to brush your teeth, and you make the decision to eat a fairly balanced diet. And, every day, you have to make a decision about mental well-being.
My suggestions are:
1- Practice mindfulness. The practice of Mindfulness can be simple and individual. It is basically about stopping thoughts rushing through your mind, and stay with the present moment, welcoming feelings as they come in a non-judgmental way. You can join a Mindfulness class. Or you can download an app such as Head Space to help you with it. It is also a good method to cultivate gratitude for the things that you do have in your life, rather than focusing on the things that don’t go so well.
2- Do Yoga. It is a wonderful practice to move your body mindfully and make the often neglected connection between mind and body. Much stress and other emotions are stored in the body. Yoga is a good way to release those emotions stored in the body. It is often a great compliment to talking therapy. I recommend Yoga to many of my clients.
3- Connect with friends, lovers and peers. The brain is the only organ in the body that self-regulates externally with other human brains. Sharing a story, a laugh, some tears is a great way of looking after your mental health. Choose people that you feel completely comfortable with.
4- If you have a spouse or romantic partner, do not miss an opportunity to tell them that you love them or tell them something you appreciate about them whilst you look into their eyes. Being kind to others is good for you!
5- Be selfish. Selfish is a word loaded with a lot of negative thinking. But let’s think about it for a moment. The opposite of selfish is selfless. Selfless means ‘losing your self’. It is often when we lose our self that we become deeply unhappy. Being selfish is a good thing, when done in balance. For example, saying ‘no’ to someone means saying ‘yes’ to yourself. This is self-care.
6- Most importantly, be mindful how you talk to yourself. It can be easy to tell others how good they are, or comfort them or congratulate them. But most of us find it difficult to do the same to ourselves. Pay attention to your own critical voice. If you hear your critical voice, argue with it with kindness. ‘I am good enough because I am a good person, a good friend. And I am intelligent, and I am good at my job even if I sometimes make mistakes. I am a human being’.
7- As well as arguing with your critical voice, make your nurturing voice grow: ‘Good for me for doing this’. ‘Congratulations me!’. ‘I am beautiful’. ‘I am a good person’. Nurturing self-talk is NOT being big-headed. It is being kind to ourselves, and it is our responsibility to our own mental health to be kind to ourselves. Being big-headed is constantly saying to others: ‘I am much better than you’. It is a completely different thing from nurturing self-talk.
8- When intense and uncomfortable emotions come, do not stop them or swallow them. Remind yourselves that emotions come and go all the time, and feeling emotions won’t kill you. Much like an ocean wave, emotions come, peak and get overwhelming for a bit, and then reduce and go. We typically tend to attach stories to emotions to make sense of them: ‘I feel angry because my partner pissed me off, he’s such an asshole!’. If you say this to yourself, the anger feeling will increase and become worse. Emotions do not live in stories. Emotions just are. Try to detach the emotions that you are feeling from any stories. And instead sit with your emotions as they come and use images to understand your emotions: ‘I am feeling angry right now, and this is because I am a human being. My anger today feels like a red sharp triangle in my heart, it’s burning and it is very heavy. Then breathe into that feeling. Soon, it will reduce. It takes practice to understand and self-regulate emotions in that way, but it is possible and it becomes easier the more you do it.
9- Rest. It is so important for your mental health to rest. If you had a busy stressful week, rest at the weekend. Resting can mean different things to different people. Some people enjoy a lie in. Some people read a good book. Some people do baking. Others engage in a hobby that has nothing to do with work. If a lie in is not your way of resting. Still make sure that you get plenty of sleep. Sleeping is when your brain re-calibrates and restores itself.
10- Remind yourself of your bill of rights: ‘I have the right to my own needs and set my own priorities as a person independent of any roles that I may assume in my life. To be treated with respect as an intelligent, capable and equal human being. To express my feelings. To express my opinions and values. To say yes and no for myself without feeling guilty. To make mistakes. To change my mind. To say I do not understand. To ask for what I want. To get what I pay for. To decline responsibility for other people’s problems. To be listened to. To be taken seriously. To deal with others without being dependent on them for their approval.’
World Mental Health Awareness Week can be an opportunity for you to do something different and look after your mental health just the way you look after your physical health. It all starts with the ‘doing’ something different. Psychological research show that self-efficacy (the I-can-do attitude) is a more important ingredient than self-esteem for happiness.
I wish you all a good week loving yourself, and loving the people close to you.