Elise Howell, LPCA
It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, and at Psych Bytes, we’re joining organizations across the country in raising awareness and breaking the stigma about mental health conditions.
Mental Health Extends Beyond a Diagnosis
“Mental Health” encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Many mental health professionals extend this definition to consider how our physical and spiritual health interacts with our overall mood and well-being.
As a clinician, I conceptualize mental health conditions from a biopsychosocial perspective. This means that we each have our unique biological and psychological make-up that mixes with the unique set of circumstances and events which define our life experience.
At some point in life, vulnerabilities in each area may interact, resulting in strain on our mental health and the presence of mental health warning signs.
Mental health concerns can be present even if symptoms do not equate to a formal diagnosis. One in 5 Americans is affected by mental health conditions. However, everyone experiences seasons of struggle when their mental health is at risk.
“PICK ONE THING YOU CAN DO TODAY TO PRIORITIZE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH!”
While mental health is often brought up in a problem-focused context, it’s important to think about mental health from a strengths-based and preventative approach.
Just as preventative actions are recommended for medical conditions, similar steps can be taken by individuals to address mental health concerns before seasons of stress exacerbate symptoms.
How Can You Make Your Mental Health a Priority?
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a therapeutic model designed to help individuals build skills to cope with difficult emotions, improve relationships, and create a life worth living.
DBT offers a model for long-term emotional health, coined by the acronym ABC PLEASE.
Accumulating Positive Experiences
PhysicaL Illness (Treat)
Avoid Mood-Altering Drugs
The ABC PLEASE model accommodates for factors that improve our overall mood and sense of meaning in life, as well as the physical factors influencing how we feel and respond to our circumstances.
Whether you are navigating stressful circumstances, or are interested in building long-term skills to care for your mental health, the following is a guide based on the ABC PLEASE model to help establish practices to make your mental health a priority:
Create Space for Reflection and Awareness
At the end of a busy day, we might feel worn down or worried. Instinct is often to grab a bite to eat and binge-watch The Office until we’re ready to fall asleep. I’m not suggesting giving up the binge-watch entirely, but setting aside 5-10 minutes each day to notice how you are feeling in mind and body.
Think back on which events of the day led up to how you are feeling in the present. Get curious about your cognitive and emotional responses to everyday events as well as how you acted on those thoughts and feelings.
Over time, this habit can create awareness of patterns that shape your response to everyday situations, and are in turn, shaping your life.
This practice also creates opportunities to recognize when you might be struggling and can prevent a build-up of emotion from catching you off-guard. Perhaps you’ll notice something you want to change and have the chance to be intentional about your next steps.
Journaling or making lists are great options for reflecting on your day. One of my favorite practices for reflection is Brené Brown’s Rising Strong model: Reckoning, Rumble, and Revolution.
If you want to take a deep dive into this process, her book, Rising Strong, walks individuals through the process to recognize their stories (reckoning), wrestle with them (rumble), and then use this awareness to write a new ending (revolution).
Mindfulness—the practice of noticing and participating in the present moment—is the foundation for awareness and reflection. When we practice mindfulness, we strengthen pathways in the brain that help us take in and respond to information intentionally rather than reactively.
You can practice mindfulness simply by using all of your senses to observe and take in the present moment, without judging. Learn more about mindfulness and building a mindfulness practice here.
As you reflect on habits and patterns, identify situations that typically lead to emotional stress. Maybe it’s a family event or the end of the fiscal year. The holidays are a prime example of a season associated with added emotional and relational stress.
Think through what challenges you may face, decide in advance how you can cope with the situation, and rehearse coping strategies in your mind prior to that event. Build in extra time for self-care, breaks, or a mini-vacation. Plan rewards for yourself on the other side of a difficult situation.
A lack (or abundance) of sleep creates vulnerability to health conditions, including reduced ability to regulate mood and cope with stress. Sleep is an important time for learning, memory, and emotional processing. When we don’t sleep well, our performance in work and school can be comprised.
Experts recommend an average of 7 hours of sleep a night. Place a priority on getting an amount of sleep that leaves you feeling well rested. In general, we sleep better when we go to bed and wake up around the same time each day, and put down our screens at least one hour before bedtime.
Move Your Body
Even though we complain about going to the gym, most people admit feeling positive after a workout. Regular exercise is the most accessible mood regulation tool we have.
Thanks to the release of dopamine that comes with exercise, moving our bodies every day improve our mood and reduces stress. Even during a busy season of life, doing something small to move your body every day can make a difference.
Reward Yourself with Positive Experiences
When we engage in activities we love and value, it adds a sense of meaning and joy to our lives. Planning and scheduling positive experiences into our routines is another proven way to boost mood.
When life’s demands put a strain on our time and energy, it can be hard to set aside time for things that just seem to be for fun.
“MENTAL HEALTH ENCOMPASSES OUR EMOTIONAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, AND SOCIAL WELL-BEING.”
However, these experiences are vital for a healthy, balanced life. To double the impact, actively practice gratitude when you have the opportunity to participate in positive activities.
Positive experiences that include learning new skills—like training for a race or taking a dance class—can increase a sense of mastery and confidence. New experiences, even as simple as trying a new cuisine, are also shown to be rewarding for our brain.
Consider setting aside time in your schedule for things that truly “fill your bucket” and align with your values, whether that’s going to an art gallery to support local art or taking a bubble bath.
The most striking finding from the Harvard Longitudinal study, following the well-being of individuals for 80 years, is that the quality of our relationships contributes to our mental and physical well-being more so than our genes.
Warm and strong relationships can serve as a buffer against physical disease and emotional pain, even when inevitable difficulties arise. Time invested in connecting with others will be a benefit to the health of both parties (as will making sure some of that time is spent in person in lieu of screens).
One Step at a Time
Creating new patterns and routines takes time and is built on small, consistent changes. Progress, not perfection. Pick one thing you can do today to prioritize your mental health! Share with us in the comments below.