5 ways to improve your mental health
The Clearing’s lead psychologist – and HLN’s Expert in Residence – Dr Rhian Lewis busts some common myths about mental health
Learning how to take care of our mental health is one of the most important life skills we can acquire.
Emotional wellbeing affects every aspect of our lives and defines both how we feel about ourselves and the lives we are living.
While, thankfully, there is much more public discourse about mental health than there used to be, our aspirational culture runs the risk of turning it into yet another thing in our lives we have to be seen to be ‘winning’ at.
Our collective preoccupation with ‘success vs failure’ sets us up to feel ashamed when the hard times hit. The suggestion is that we should be in total control of our emotional health. If we simply do all of the ‘right’ self-care rituals, we can keep the ‘bad’ feelings at bay. So, if we are having a hard time, then we must’ve dropped the ball.
This kind of judgement only serves to make the hard times harder, so it’s essential we take a more realistic and compassionate approach to our mental health.
Suffering is a natural part of life
Throughout life, we will all be touched by loss, relationship problems, ill health and difficult experiences that shake our sense of identity and confront our egos. To imagine that there is some way to be unmoved by these universal challenges is to set ourselves up to fail.
We will wobble. We will get angry. We will get anxious and we will cry. These emotions are a completely normal part of being human but, because they aren’t pleasant experiences, we’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t experience them at all. Our knee jerk response is to shoo them away as quickly as possible. But in doing so, we rob ourselves of these natural outlets and inhibit our healing process.
Restricting feelings only causes more stress and often stores up problems for the future. Good mental health, therefore, is not about achieving a constant state of bliss, it’s about learning how to go with the flow of our emotions.
Letting Our Feelings Be
This sounds so simple but it’s actually incredibly difficult. In aspiring to perpetual calm and contentment, we’ve ended up pathologising all other emotions – creating mistrust and resistance to any feelings that are seen as unfavourable.
And so, simply letting our emotions be is rarely our initial instinct. We’ve learned to hide how we feel in order to appear a certain way to others, (strong, nice, fun, etc). In service to this performance, our sadness, anger and fears are shut down to the point that we don’t know what to do with them when they bubble to the surface. Our feelings have become our enemy and we fear that if we give them any space at all, they’ll take over us entirely. For good mental health to be possible, we must first reacquaint ourselves with our feelings – so we can learn how to take care of ourselves when the more difficult ones arise.
The first step in getting to know our emotional world is to listen in to it. The busyness of modern life means we rarely stop to think about how we feel and why. Taking time to lean into ourselves can be totally life changing.
How we do this can vary, from the classic therapy route to a regular spiritual practice, or simply taking a mindful 10 minutes each day to check in. Pay attention to your emotions. Pay attention to what’s happening in your body. Ask yourself what these emotional and somatic experiences are about. Where does your mind go when you tune into them and what does that tell you about why these feelings are there?
None of our emotions are malign. They are not out to get you or ruin your day. They are simply messengers; here to tell you something about what’s going on. Sometimes they have information about a here and now situation, like: ‘there’s trouble in the air’, ‘don’t trust this person’ or ‘something needs to change in this relationship’. Sometimes, they’re letting us know that an old wound needs to be addressed so we can move forward. In this way, they can be great guides – helping us to better navigate life and supporting us to maintain our emotional wellbeing.
The self-awareness that comes from tuning in also means that we’re less inclined to dump or blame our feelings on those around us. It’s a win-win for everybody. Instead of lashing out when we get frustrated, for example, we learn to step back, take a breath and ask ourselves: ‘what is this really pressing on?’ More often than not, there is something deeper going on and our irritation can be used as an opportunity to learn something and grow, instead of just adding more stress to our day.
The more we come to understand our emotional experiences, the more we can learn how to take care of ourselves when different feelings hit. There’s a wealth of advice out there about how we can promote positive mental health through exercise, nutrition and support seeking. Tuning in to what works for you will help you to create a toolbox of self-care options.
Whilst these strategies are great to have, it’s important that we remain realistic about their limits. Life can throw challenges our way that either mean these tools aren’t available, or simply don’t make a dent in the pain. Taking care of our mental health, therefore, has to be both an adaptive and compassionate process.
If your usual coping mechanisms aren’t working, go gently with yourself. We aren’t in charge of our emotional responses and there are many situations in life where no amount of positive thinking, healthy eating or exercise will make a difference to how we feel. In these instances, we are tasked with living through the pain. Feeling what we’re feeling and doing whatever it is we need to do to take care of ourselves.
We’re inclined to believe that the head has all the answers. But in situations like this, it’s the body’s wisdom that we need to tap into. Our head might have strong ideas about what we ‘should’ be doing to feel better, but if they aren’t in alignment with what our body needs, they’re just going to make us feel worse.
At times of extreme suffering, it’s often the case that we have to get out of our own way to allow ourselves to do whatever the body is asking of us – for example, take time off work, stay in bed all day, don’t do anything ‘productive’ for a while, get on our knees and wail. What the body needs will vary and so, again, it’s about being compassionately attuned to yourself.
Good mental health is really a synonym for a good relationship with yourself. It’s a way of being with your emotions that allows them space, without judgement or restriction. Rather than trying to control how we feel, we’re tasked with learning how to ride the changes, drawing on self-care tools when we can and accepting the times when those tools aren’t going to cut it. If we can hold ourselves gently in this way, we really can survive whatever life throws at us.
Struck a chord? You can find out more about how to better look after your mental health, including information about therapy and counselling sessions with Dr Rhian and her team, over on The Clearing’s website