Conversations surrounding mental health are finally becoming more commonplace and accepted within society, and protecting and nurturing your mental wellness is more important than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic uprooted everyone’s regular routines and meant that people who thrive personally, financially, or emotionally on interconnectivity were isolated. Obviously, this situation can escalate existing issues or create new mental health concerns for someone. I know for myself, a sufferer of anxiety, body dysmorphia, and bouts of depression, that the pandemic only made what I called my ‘COVID depression’ worse at times. However, by understanding the important role that mental health plays, we can begin to take steps to better our lives. This article will explore why mental health is so important and provide the tools to start improving your overall mental wellness by explaining how it affects your physical health, arguing that society needs to get rid of the stigma and shaming, and exemplifying how mental wellness extends to all aspects of your life.
Mental Health Directly Impacts Physical Health
Many people who deal with mental health issues are at a higher risk of having physical problems for various reasons. For one, these people are more likely to rely on maladaptive coping skills to deal with anxiety-provoking situations by using drugs or alcohol or engaging in other destructive, risky behaviors. For example, I can confirm that I have used alcohol over the years to try and pacify particular anxieties. However, since alcohol is a depressant, it didn’t always work to calm my thoughts down; sometimes, it had the opposite effect. In fact, once I cut down on my alcohol consumption, I found that my overall energy and mood levels increased. This is because substances like alcohol or drugs cause a chemical change in the composition of the brain, and if used for extended periods, can have long-lasting effects. By eliminating these maladaptive coping skills and replacing them with healthier routines, I saw my overall mental and physical wellness increase.
Secondly, your body always wants to stick with the status quo that it believes your brain wants. So, if your brain tells your body (consciously or unconsciously) every day that it will be a stressful, anxiety-ridden day, your body will start to show these effects over time. It can manifest as several physical responses such as trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, or even weight loss or gain. However, there are ways to rewire your brain and increase your overall mental wellness.
Some healthy habits to form instead of relying on these maladaptive coping skills would be first to remember to be nice to yourself and your body. Having a kind inner dialogue can go a long way. Furthermore, setting a schedule and having a regular morning, night, and sleeping routine can make a world of difference. Your brain and body will know what to expect daily, which helps create certainty and calm anxieties. Lastly, a huge thing that you can do for your mental and physical health is to move your body. Exercise releases endorphins into your body which is the natural feel-good hormone, meaning with a proper wellness routine, there is no need to chase these feelings from drugs and alcohol. By creating patterns of adherence in your everyday life that specifically work for you, it can significantly increase your mental wellness and overall quality of life.
Ending the Stigma and Shaming
Another thing that’s important because it would significantly increase the overall mental wellness of society is ending the stigma and shame that surrounds discussing various mental health topics. One place that this often happens is in the workplace. Just because someone requests to take a day off and has to mark it as a mental health day does not mean they have a mental illness. Similarly, just because someone doesn’t seem like they are struggling on the outside because they come to work on time with a smile each day doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling on the inside. It is all about perception versus reality. In University, my friends never perceived me as being depressed, so no one ever asked, even though, in reality, I was extremely depressed following a sudden death of a family member. The façade we put up is what people come to think is true, and it creates walls of misunderstanding. However, by having open discussions and communicating your feelings or needs to a friend, family member, coworker, employer, or therapist, we can begin to break down these walls and end the stigma around talking about mental health.
A few companies that are paving the way for discussions around mental wellness and well-being are LinkedIn, Nike, and Bumble. Recently, these businesses announced they would be giving their employees a week-long break to relax and avoid potential burnout. These massive companies publicly promoting their employees’ mental wellness will hopefully influence more businesses to analyze their working conditions and take their employees’ well-being into account more. Another example that shocked the world was when Simone Biles withdrew from the remaining events she was slotted to participate in at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics saying that she needed to focus on her mental health. The announcement immediately sparked global conversations surrounding the mental wellness of athletes and I think what Simone did was extremely brave. Protecting and nurturing mental wellness should no longer be viewed as an option but rather a necessary component of one’s overall health.
Mental Health Affects Everything
First used as a book title by Vikram Patel in 2007, the saying ‘there can be no health without mental health’ is now a common phrase used in discussions of mental wellness. We, as a society, are finally starting to realize that you cannot truly be a healthy person without attention to mental health as well. Your mental wellness ultimately affects everything from your work-life balance to your personal relationships and inner dialogue. And since mental wellness impacts everyone in some way, it’s crazy that we are still not fully transparent about it as a society.
I was discussing mental wellness with a colleague of mine recently, and she gave me some extremely interesting advice. She asked me what I do for my dogs every day, and I told her that at the bare minimum, I feed them and walk them, and on special days we go to the dog park. She looked at me and said that I need to treat myself like I would my dogs on my poor mental health days. No matter what, I need to feed myself and move my body, even if it’s just for a little bit. I thought this was ground-breaking because while I have thought of myself as being on autopilot mode before, I never thought about how these routines are actually acts of self-love.
My friends’ suggestion goes back to the idea of adherence to healthier routines. Although it can be challenging at first, it takes 21 days of consistently doing something to form a new habit. There are also ways to start developing healthier mental practices right now. For example, I journal each day and find that it helps me mentally prepare myself for the day. Writing in my journal also allows me to recognize any anxiety I might be feeling that day, so it can be on the paper and not lingering in my head. Another thing that is critical for your body to function properly is getting enough sleep. If your body is not well-rested, you cannot expect your mental or physical profile to be in top shape. Lastly, being able to recognize when your body needs a break is something not everyone can do. Part of being mentally healthy means understanding yourself and your needs and being able to communicate that to others. By taking care of your mental wellness, you will be more prepared to build healthier relationships, cope with stress or adversity, and realize your full potential.
Ultimately, protecting and nurturing your mental wellness is essential, especially in these continually unprecedented times. That might mean turning off the screens for the night, grabbing coffee with an old friend, or getting the endorphins flowing through a run. I could reiterate all of the suggestions on how to improve your overall mental wellness; however, what works for one person might not work for another. The well-being of each person is extremely nuanced, which is why it is important to understand your needs and be able to fulfill them as well as communicate them to others. Overall, mental wellness affects everyone and it is time that we break down the walls of misunderstanding and start to have more open, honest talks about mental health so that we may “Fire” our “Old Self” and create “Our NEW SELF” in turn remembering, Life’s Short, Love the Life You Live!