Mental Health 101

back to the basics

Mental Health 101

Aside from being a psychotherapist, I also work conducting mental health assessments. At the end of the assessments, I identify an area or two that clients can begin work on to improve their mental health functioning.

Most of us do a great job maintaining our mental health functioning AND most of us have periods when we don’t do so well for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it can be a relatively easy fix. A few basic changes can have a powerful effect.

Exercise, Diet, Sleep, and Socializing

As part of my daily routine, I strive to eat three healthy meals, get a good night’s rest, get some exercise and connect with other humans. Easier said than done given the hectic, fast-paced lives most of us tend to live.

In my professional life, I often hear, “I used to exercise regularly but now I’m just not motivated.” I know, I get it. There are days I don’t feel like exercising, such as when I’m having a bad day or I’m just tired and overwhelmed. But I don’t question whether or not I should do it; I just do it, it’s part of my daily routine, no matter how I feel about exercising. There are plenty of days when we don’t feel like going to our job but we just do it because we know the consequences could be serious. The body needs to move and if it doesn’t do so regularly the consequences can be just as serious. 

After I complete my exercise routine I feel better. Always. Research demonstrates time and time again that regular exercise is an effective treatment for mood and anxiety issues, plus you get all of the physical health benefits, and you may look better too! I also notice that after exercising, I’m more likely to do something else I didn’t want to do, such as deal with that big pile of dishes I’ve been avoiding. One positive act builds upon another. Pretty soon I feel better. 

Weird, or is it? It’s this concept of “contrary action” – doing what you don’t feel like doing – to improve a given situation. Like cleaning out the garage or going through that pile of mail. 

The same goes for eating three healthy meals per day. Sure, I’d eat donuts every day if I could, but if I did it would take its toll. I admit I’ll have a donut every now and then – no big deal, but more importantly, I eat three basically healthy meals per day, consisting of some proteins and fresh fruits and/or vegetables. It gives me more energy, which enables me to more easily do the things that make my life meaningful. Moreover, mood is tied to one’s blood sugar level – balanced blood sugar lends itself to balanced moods. The term “hangry,” which refers to feeling angry because you’re hungry, reflects this connection.

Now for sleep. This can be tricky. Many of us strive to get the sleep we need, but we continuously fall short, which leads to low energy, low motivation, and low moods. Getting good sleep calls for good sleep hygiene, such as cutting back on caffeine (especially in the afternoon and evening); turning off personal devices an hour or two before bedtime that emit “blue light” that tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime. Also avoiding intense conversations, action-packed movies, or books you can’t put down is helpful. Did I mention that exercise is great for sleep? Well, it is! Just make sure you finish exercising two to four hours prior to bed.

Healthy social interactions are an essential part of all happy and functional humans. We have been hard-wired to connect and bond with other humans for 200,000 years. If we’ve had a history of trauma, neglect or a host of unsupportive people in our lives it can make it difficult to trust others or be in the company of other people. In cases like these, it’s understandable why some people would just prefer to be alone. Therapy can help with this by examining the old defense mechanisms that used to keep you safe as a child. Now that you’re an adult these templates for living need to be updated. Sure, many of us need some alone time but our default should be regular positive social interactions, even when we don’t feel like it. Positive social interactions increase those feel-good chemicals in our brain like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. 

Even with good sleep hygiene, mental health issues may prevent you from getting a good night’s rest, eating regularly, and getting exercise. Anxiety, depression, other mood issues, and/or substance abuse are the most likely culprits. One indication you are struggling with these problems is a “racing mind” – it’s hard to turn your thoughts off or you feel restless, nervous, or worried when it’s time for sleep.

When dealing with any mood or anxiety abnormalities, employ the techniques of Mental Health 101. If you don’t see a significant improvement in a couple of weeks, it may be time to see a therapist.

– Peter Lear, LCSW

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