Whatever stage of life you are in, you are probably feeling the intense pressures that we are under as a society. We are under a barrage of constant bad news, stress at our jobs, and tensions in our interpersonal relationships. While there is much that is good and much that is just neutral, the constant changes of everyday life still affects us.
So, I want you to ask yourself this question:
How am I really doing?
Checking in with ourselves on a regular basis, the same way we would with someone we know, is the first step to taking care of our mental health. It’s too easy for problems to slip by us or for us to deny that they are there, leading to those problems becoming worse and sneaking up on us in sometimes destructive ways.
Checking in with yourself is a great start, but what do you do from there? As a start, I want to recommend two specific ways that you can develop mental health or wholeness.
Talk to Someone
By putting this first, I am worried that I have lost some of you because I don’t mean just talk to a friend (even though that is important). When I say talk to someone, I mean a counselor, pastor, or spiritual director. But, if you hear the word “counselor” or “counseling”, what immediately pops into your mind? Some common responses I have heard, even in groups of different professionals, include:
I don’t need to see a counselor; I’m stronger than that.
I can figure this out on my own.
A counselor wouldn’t help; all they do is tell you what you want to hear.
All counseling does is make you sit around and cry.
If you believe any of these things, then I probably cannot convince you otherwise in a blog post, but I would like to appeal to your natural curiosity and talk about what counseling does help with.
Anytime that we go through a life transition like a birth, death, divorce, marriage, change in our family structure, change in job, loss at a job, or another life transition like milestone ages, we experience stress. Even positive stress can be hard on us. In addition, we need to consider the mental wear and tear that can happen from any type of abuse, abandonment, trauma, witnessing something hard, a major illness, financial problems, or supporting someone going through a trauma. We can experience incredible darkness in our everyday lives.
All of these things that we go through on a daily basis, whether good, bad, or neutral, exert an effect on our brain. Our experiences and what we think about them, actually regularly change the neural pathways in our brains throughout our entire lives. This impacts how we think and what we do. While it was once thought that after childhood the brain is static and doesn’t grow, the brain is actually always changing. This is called neuroplasticity. Every morning, we wake up with new, tiny nerve cells in our brain that will be shaped by what we do during that day.
So, where does counseling fit into this? Counseling is a way for you to actively reshape old patterns of thinking, worries, and habits that are getting in the way of your life now. If you have things that are holding you back, then counseling can help you with this because you will be discussing these things with someone who is highly skilled in active listening. This person can assist you in making sense of your past or managing the things in your present life that are not working.
Counseling is not sitting around with someone who wants to make you cry or who wants to just tell you what you want to hear. Counseling is getting the dedicated attention of someone who has knowledge and experience in helping people grow in meaningful ways. All it takes to work is to show up and be motivated about what it is in your life that is bothering you, not working, or that you want to experience newness is. That means that if you are trying to achieve a dream or goal that hasn’t been working, counseling can help. That means that if you keep finding romantic relationships or even friendships not working out, that counseling can help.
Finally, counseling doesn’t have to be for the long-run. You may only need to see someone a few times, depending on what you are there for. For example, I have seen a counselor for short periods such as after my father died, for trauma I experienced after a couple of hard surgeries, and for help in developing vocational goals. These three separate times were over a few months in different years of my life, and these experiences meant that I grew in unexpected and helpful ways. I have also seen two different counselors for longer periods of time for other problems from my past, and I experienced true healing and significant change.
So, go to a pastor, visit a counselor, see a spiritual director. One, or maybe all of these people, can help you work on the area of your life you want to address. Find someone who fits and that you are comfortable with, and don’t give up if the first person you see is just the wrong fit.
Evaluate What You are Putting Into Your Body
What we eat, what we drink, the environments we are in, and the medications that we take affect us. Let’s take a quick look at each of these to see how they fit into mental health.
Eating and drinking can affect our mental health in dramatic ways. If we aren’t eating at regular times, we can become angry or listless. If we consume caffeine in soda, energy drinks, and coffee, we can experience effects like heightened anxiety. Sugar can be addictive and cause crashes that mimic depression. If we add consuming alcohol to the mix, then the possible impacts on our state of mind increase in many ways. Finally, lacking vitamins that are often missing in our nutritionally depleted foods, like vitamin D or the B vitamins, can further complicate how we feel. While it may not be fun to do, I recommend spending at least a week recording the food and drink that you are consuming using an app or a little notebook. Look for patterns and trends like caffeine, sugar, eating times, and then think about your moods on those days of the week. You might be very surprised by the results. It’s easy to assume that food is just food, and that anything you can easily buy is fine to eat, but all food is made up of chemicals that interact with our bodies. Not all food affects everyone the same way.
In the same way, the environments that we are in affect what goes on in our bodies. We might be allergic to something, which leads to suffering, irritability, or depression. If we spend a lot of time inside, we can be missing out on the ways that the sun, dirt, and trees naturally aid our mental health through the Vitamin D the sun contributes, and the chemicals that are in soil and given off by trees. There are other ways our environments might be affecting us like how cluttered they are or the type of lighting that is used. We might not always be able to control these factors, but if we can look at and consider our environment, we might discover things that are affecting our mental health.
Finally, if you are taking a prescription for something and having new problems with your mental health, then it’s time to check the possible side-effects, look up some reviews, and call a pharmacist. Even medications that we have taken for years, can suddenly start giving us problems as our body chemistry or even the particular formula for the medication can vary. Generic drugs, for example, can be made using slightly different combinations of inert or active ingredients from different sources, than can lead to new reactions where there was none before. There can be surprising side-effects to everything from psychiatric medicine to antibiotics.
I hope that this post contains something useful for you. These are just two starting points to help you get thinking about your mental health.