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Staying Mentally Healthy

This weekend I had the opportunity to speak at the Mental Health Workshop at The Avenue Church. This is the first workshop that they have had, and it was such a great opportunity. I wanted to take this opportunity to write about ways to stay mentally healthy, which is what I covered in the main session at the workshop.

To begin, let's distinguish the difference between mental health and a mental disorder. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act. It determines how we handle stress, relate to others and make healthy choices and it is important at every stage of life. A mental disorder is a mental health condition that creates a significant disturbance in the way one thinks, acts and feels. Even if you do not have a diagnosable mental health disorder, you may still have symptoms of different disorders, which is why it is so important to stay mentally healthy.

To stay mentally healthy, these are the 5 areas I will cover:

  1. Practice Self-Awareness

  2. Reduce Stress

  3. Build & Maintain Strong Social Support

  4. Set Boundaries

  5. Self-Care

PRACTICE SELF AWARENESS - In order to practice self-awareness, you need to take a look at what you are experiencing and feeling rather than just responding to everything that is happening. Here are some questions that you can ask yourself to practice self-awareness:

  1. What am I feeling?

  2. Have I had any increased stress in my life recently?

  3. On a scale of 1-10, how high is my level of stress?

  4. Am I taking care of myself?

  5. Am I engaging in unhealthy patterns of behavior?

  6. How am I doing in each area of health?

There are 5 different areas of health that I want to focus on. These areas of health are all related and overlap each other. The areas of health are PHYSICAL (sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise), SPIRITUAL (prayer, bible reading, spending time with God, bible studies), EMOTIONAL (identifying and coping with emotions), SOCIAL (friends, support system, vulnerability), and MENTAL (self-care, therapy, support systems). In each of these areas of health, how are you doing? A good way to assess this is to rate how healthy you are in each area from 0-100 (100 is you are perfectly healthy in this area and 0 is you are doing nothing in this area. You will probably fall somewhere between these two extremes).

REDUCE STRESS - Stress has a negative affect on all of the systems of the body from your brain, cardiovascular, gut and immune to just name a few). There are 3 types of stress: ACUTE STRESS (a single incident of sudden danger where your body reacts with the stress response but then goes back to a state of calm), CHRONIC STRESS (long-term and constant stress from an ongoing situation) and TRAUMATIC STRESS (experiencing a life-threatening event that induces fear and a feeling of helplessness; can potentially lead to PTSD). The reality is that we are not completely helpless when it comes to stress. It is important to look at the inputs in your life that increase stress, such as scrolling social media, news reports, traffic, noise, mindlessly bingeing shows and replace some of these with inputs that decrease stress, such as prayer, mindfulness, worship music, social connection, laughter and being in nature.

SOCIAL SUPPORT - It is really important that we build and maintain strong social support. We were not meant to go through life alone. "Two are better than one... if either of them falls down, one can help the other up, but pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up." Ecclesiastes 4:9`10. In order to build social support, you need to determine who is in your circle. Ideally we should have 1-5 people in our innermost circle that know the real you. These are the people you can call on when you need help. The next circle would be family and friends. These are people who you are close to, but they may not be the people you tell everything to. Next are acquaintances. These are people that you may work with or know, but don't feel close to. And the most outer circle are strangers, and these are people that you may come across in the grocery store, but have no relationship with. Are there any people in those outer circles that you could bring in to a more close relationship? You can also consider joining a group, such as an interest group or even a support group.

BOUNDARIES - In order to be mentally healthy, we need to make sure that we set boundaries. These boundaries are not only in relationships, but these are also boundaries around our time and energy. A boundary helps differentiate where our responsibility ends and another person's responsibility starts. A boundary is set out of love rather than fear. It is also important to understand the difference between a rule and a boundary. A rule tells someone else what to do (ie, "You have to stop talking to me this way"). A rule is not effective because we cannot control another person. A boundary states what we will do in response to another person's actions (ie, "If you continue talking to me in this way, I will end the phone call"). A boundary around time and energy might look like setting a limit on when you will check your work emails instead of being accessible 24/7. One of the most important parts of a boundary is following through with the boundary.

SELF CARE - the practice of taking care of your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of your life to promote health and wellness. Self-care is engagement, not escape. For example, we unplug from the stress while also plugging into something restorative. It is less focus on what we want and more focus on what we need. It is important to be intentional and actively plan your self-care. An example of this would be "I am stressed, so I am going to go for a walk and then go to bed early" rather than "I am stressed so I will binge Netflix an eat a bag of chips". Self-care includes adequate sleep, good nutrition, movement, creativity, social connection and any other thing that feels restorative and energizing to you. And, as stated before, these elements of health are all interconnected. So, as you are working on your mental health through self-care strategies, you will also be working on your other areas of health.

In the overly stressed world that we live in, it is really important to be proactive in staying mentally healthy. Sometimes we need additional help. If you are doing all of these strategies and you are still struggling with your mental health, reach out to a professional. You are worth it!

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