Note: This blog is part of a cross-collaboration between the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. This piece originally appeared on the NAMI Blog.
During childhood, we learn lesson-by-lesson how to take care of ourselves. Many lessons pertain to our health—such as bandaging a scrape so it doesn’t get infected. But typically, our childhood health lessons involve only physical health. What are kids taught to do when they feel lonely? Or when they feel rejected by other kids? The answer, usually, is nothing.
Why is physical health prioritized more than psychological health? Psychological health weathers many wounds—some might even argue we experience more emotional wounds than physical. These wounds—such as feelings of failure, inferiority, anxiety, rejection, loneliness—routinely get infected and worsen because we don’t know how to treat them. In fact, it doesn’t even occur to us that we should.
These emotional and psychological wounds impact our lives for years, often more than we realize. We tell ourselves that these problems are in our head, that they will go away and we will return to “normal” eventually. But imagine if we treated a broken leg the same way: We would likely never walk again.
How Can We Practice Mental Health?
Our quality of life would dramatically improve if we learned and practiced emotional hygiene. We would cope better with difficult situations and build emotional resilience. Even though we don’t learn how to do this as kids, there are many proven ways to prevent and treat psychological wounds throughout life. Below are a few.
Battle Negative Thinking
What is our natural inclination when something is bothering us? We think and think in a vicious, negative cycle about everything that is wrong. This is an instinctive tendency that only wounds us further; it is also one of the most challenging habits to break.
According to Psychology Today, recent neuroscience shows that we can train ourselves to self-regulate negative emotions and rewire our brains to move toward loving/kindness, empathy and positive emotions. So every time you start to focus on the negative, distract yourself—even if only for two minutes.
Calm Your Thinking
One way to battle negative thinking is through meditation. Meditation is often seen as the practice of controlling the mind and stopping all thought, but that doesn’t work for most people. If meditation instead involved stepping back from our thoughts and looking at them with a relaxed, focused mind, we might have a better chance at reducing everyday stress. So how can we achieve this? Take each thought—one at a time—and focus on it. Is it really important? Is this thought productive? Then move on. Consider each thought like a cloud in the sky. Focus on one thought at a time to determine what it resembles, then let it pass by so you can move your attention to the next.
Change Your Response to Failure
One of the hardest thought cycles to let go of is when we feel as though we have failed at something. A typical response to failure is self-blame and an attempt to gain something positive from the experience: a new perspective, a lesson, motivation to work harder, etc. While this may seem like the most productive response, it isn’t, according to the Harvard Business Review.
The only way we should respond to failure is with empathy. We must greet our failures with the understanding that it’s okay to fail. We must stop trying to derive something positive from a negative. We should accept our mistakes and not blame ourselves for what happened. Life is messy, and it’s normal not to be perfect.
Show Yourself Compassion
If your friend was feeling down, how would you make them feel better? Maybe you would validate their feelings, offer support or reminisce on something positive. Showing this kind of compassion and understanding is what a good friend does—so why don’t we do the same for ourselves?
Rather than berating yourself for negative feelings or failures, treat yourself the way you would treat a close friend. Tell yourself that you understand what you’re going through and that you shouldn’t feel bad for having a hard time. Ask yourself, “What can I do that would make me feel better?” Also think about a time when you felt good, and try to harness what that felt like. These are all things we hope our friends will do for us, but we are more than capable of providing this kind of compassion to ourselves.
Take Action When You’re Lonely
According to the New York Times, loneliness has been linked to physical illness, functional and cognitive decline, and even early death. Research also shows that people who feel lonely are more likely to isolate themselves even further. This is because loneliness changes the way our brain functions and causes people to subconsciously guard themselves and go into self-preservation mode.
With that in mind, seek out relationships that make you feel connected. It doesn’t help just to be around other people; loneliness doesn’t always mean you are literally alone, but rather that you feel socially disconnected. Take a class, rekindle an old friendship, Skype your family members, volunteer at your local community center or do anything else you can think of to force yourself out of isolation.
Sometimes we can become socially disconnected because we are too busy. Having time to recharge is essential for our minds. New York Times writer Tim Kreider comments that “idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”
According to the research article “Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education,” rest allows the brain to process any new information that it has absorbed, work through unresolved conflicts and reflect. Rest can also help lower levels of stress and anxiety and increase our memory and ability to focus. So use your personal days!
Slowing down also gives us time to appreciate what we have. Research supports an association between gratitude and an overall sense of wellbeing. Consciously practicing grateful thinking each day can strengthen connections with other people, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve self-worth.
Wake up each morning with the question, “What do I appreciate about my life?,” and write down a few things, even if they are simple or obvious. In time, you will feel a positive effect on your outlook. It is not happiness that makes us grateful—it is gratefulness that makes us happy.
These are only a few of the many methods to practice mental health and achieve psychological well-being. While implementing these practices into your life can be challenging (because they are often opposite to our natural instincts), they can make a huge positive impact in your life.
Laura Greenstein is communications coordinator at NAMI.
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