A world pandemic causing a worldwide locked/quarantine changed the way we look at “normal.” Every-day life changed, parents became teachers, work was done remotely from home, therapy was being via the internet the list goes on and on. The struggle became learning how to manage life within the confines of our homes with people we thought we knew. Being quarantined caused isolation for many, which in turn increased awareness of mental health concerns leaving people searching for a sense of mental wellness and well-being.
How do we define mental wellness?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the definition of mental wellness is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to his or her community.”
Mental health constitutes more than the lack of a mental disorder. Mental health includes subjective well-being, perceived self-efficacy, autonomy, competence, intergenerational dependence, and recognition of the ability to realize one’s intellectual and emotional potential. Individuals can recognize their intellectual and emotional potential. We should all be concerned with mental health, not only for those who have a mental disorder.
There are a constant ebb and flow of our mental health daily. Many things impact this, including physical health, home, and work environments, and relationships. Let us look at the connection between our physical health and how it affects our mental health. Think for a moment about you feel after a vigorous workout, most of us have a sense of accomplishment, more energy, and generally feel happier. Now, think about what happens when we are not consistently working out, there is a sense of sluggishness, feeling depressed, unhappy, and generally unsatisfied with life. So, the connection between physical health and mental health is viable. When we have an active lifestyle that includes working out and eating a healthier diet, we release endorphins into the body that increase the hormones and chemicals that make us feel better and happier.
We all seek happiness and want to be happy, but what does that mean? When people say they want to be happy, what they mean is they want to have a feeling of a positive sense of mental well-being. Achieving a sense of mental well-being takes effort and a willingness to incorporate different activities into daily life. One of the first things I recommend to my clients is to learn that self-care does not mean you are selfish. What it means is that you like and love yourself enough to take care of you, so you can take care of those you love. Self-care does not require spending absorbent amounts of money or taking lengthy amounts of time away from your family or job. It can be as simple as taking a walk around your neighborhood, workplace, or park alone to relax and enjoy nature. Or it might be going to the spa for women, going fishing or hiking for men, it might be taking time away from the family/husband/wife for a night out with friends. Many, many other things could be listed here; however, self-care looks different for everyone. The one thing self-care is not is selfish!
Incorporating a few things into a personal life that does not require time away from family or work yet can help improve a sense of well-being and can improve quality of life. There are buzz words we all hear but may not know what or how to incorporate them into our daily lives. Some of the more recognized ones are mindfulness, environmental influence, loving others, self-compassion, and physical wellness. Let us look at each one briefly.
Mindfulness is learning to be present, rather than being stuck in the past or projecting into the future. Mindfulness allows you to use all your senses to stay in the present, meaning asking yourself, what do I smell, hear, see, taste, and what am I feeling. You can do this anywhere at any time.
Mindfulness allows for you to be aware of what you are doing, so you can override automatic thinking and make positive changes in behavior and thoughts. Being mindful allows for non-judgmental responses to events that are happening to allow for the detachment from negative emotions rather than being controlled by them. Result in changing how you respond to events in your life. As you practice mindfulness, your feelings become better regulated, and you can react less emotionally over things you cannot control.
The benefits from a mindfulness practice do not come from occasional use but daily practice for approximately 10 minutes a day. Practicing 10 minutes a day will provide you with some benefit in a matter of a few days. There will be a noticeable change in your behavior with daily practice in a couple of weeks. Changes you should notice include feeling calmer, less stressed, and things that used to bother you will not be as noticeable as before. Other noticeable changes you will feel will be clarity of thought and ability to focus. Mindfulness works best when you can find and dedicate a specific time to practice every day; this looks different for everyone. There are multiple books, courses, and online resources to help you learn how to practice mindfulness. For beginners, there are guided apps on your phone that will help; one such app is Headspace and one I would recommend.
Our environment matters more than most people realize. The environment impacts emotional well-being because it stays active in the subconscious mental space for a brief period, even after the event is over. An example, have you heard a song on the radio, saw something or smelled something and then sometime later you heard, smelled, or had an emotional reaction to what you saw. These events are still active in your subconscious and impact you emotionally. Therefore, to experience positive emotional well-being taking in as many positive things from your environment is vital. You also must minimize the number of negative things around you. There are things in our environment that we do not pay attention to that impact our emotional well-being. Think about the things that are on television, presented in the news, the music we listen to, video games played, social media, and the people we are surrounded by. If these things are negative, the emotional impact is negative; frequently, you do not notice how these things are making you feel down.
One way to begin to experience positive input is to change the environment around us. By doing things such as watching the news, disconnecting from those who are negative and complain, stop watching or playing anything violent or scary. Begin to make a conscious effort to surround yourself with positive, uplifting, and inspiring things. Examples such as spending time in nature, with joyful people, listen to uplifting music, read inspirational books, and improve well-being. The time and effort this will take help you begin to feel more positive.
Self-Compassion is one of the most foundational elements of emotional well-being. Finding true happiness is dependent on the ability to have self-compassion. To have a good life, you cannot hate yourself, even though many people try. People are self-critical, use much negative self-talk to motivate themselves to do better, demanding perfection, and setting unrealistic expectations for themselves, essentially setting themselves up to fail. All of the negative self-talk impacts and damages self-esteem and can lead to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Learning to like and be kind to yourself is self-compassion. A willingness to forgive yourself for mistakes, flaws, and shortcomings is taking a step in the right direction. For true self-confidence, you must learn true unconditional love of self. People are typically controlled by their inner-critic and believe they do not deserve to have self-compassion. If you think you are influenced by your inner-critic and lack self-esteem seeking professional therapy may be needed. Many self-help books can help improve self-esteem. I recommend to my clients is The Self-Esteem Workbook by Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D. there is also a companion book “Self-Esteem” both are incredibly helpful with improving self-esteem.
When we are kind to others, it releases chemicals in the reward center of the brain, also known as the pre-frontal cortex, referred to by professionals as the “Helper’s high.” Helping other people helps lower stress, blood pressure, and relief from depression and physical pain, all of which are positive effects on mental health. There is research that shows those who engage in showing compassion, kindness, and love for others helps to have a better and higher quality of life as well as live longer. Demonstrating these types of behaviors can be as simple as spending more time doing the loving, kind things for people in your life, maybe volunteering occasionally or helping out at the local food bank. All of these types of activities helped to get you out of your head and focused on someone else’s well-being, all of which help you feel good about yourself.
Last but not least is the physical aspect of mental well-being. The body and mind cannot be separated. There is a whole school of thought and research to show that nutrition and exercise play an essential role in mental well-being (Jacka, 2017). We all know that exercise plays a significant role in helping a person feel better because when we exercise, endorphins are released into the body, creating feelings of pleasure. Research shows that cardio exercise daily in a minimum of 10 minutes can be enough to improve mood and quality of sleep. This, in turn, helps emotion regulation and a great sense of well-being (Jaffery, Annese, Edwards, & Loprinzi, 2017).
More than ever, people need to find a sense of well-being and mental wellness as we begin to adapt to the new “normal” after the pandemic quarantine. For this to be a reality, people are going to have to take the steps necessary to experience mental wellness. The reasons people used to give about why they are unable to achieve this are no longer relevant: being too depressed, too anxious, not enough time, too stressed out, or too much to do and people to take care of. Now is the time to put forth the effort required to make the changes necessary to bring mental wellness. It takes energy to list out limitations and reasons why people cannot make the required changes—moving this energy toward living a joyful and mentally healthy life. It is time to focus all your energy and attention on how to implement self-care and believe it is okay. Mental wellness and well-being do not happen because you talk about it; it happens when you put action behind the words you speak.
Jacka, F. (2017). Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to next?” EBioMedicine.
Jaffery, Annese, Edwards, M. K., & Loprinizi, P. D. (2017). Randomized control of intervention evaluating the effects of acute exercise on depression and mood profile: Solomon experimental design. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Vol. 92. No. 3. Elsevier.
O’Leary, K., Bylsma, L. M., & Rottenberg, J. (2016). Why might poor sleep quality lead to depression? A role of emotion regulation. Cognition and Emotion pg. 1-9.
Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 12.2. pgs. 66-67.
Toups, M., Carmody, T., Rethorst, C., Grannemann, B. & Trivedi, M. H. (2017). Exercise is an effective treatment for positive valence symptoms in major depression. Journal of Affective Disorders 209: pgs. 188-194.
World Health Organization https://www.wikihow.com/Cite-the-WHO-in-APA
By Hayley Knowlton, LCSW
Hayley Knowlton is a licensed clinical social worker in the states of Virginia and Idaho who provides psychological therapies and assessments to active duty military, veterans, and adults. Her primary focus is in the treatment of trauma, dual diagnosis, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, and severe mental health issues. Her professional accomplishments include her training in both basic and advanced modules of Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). Her therapeutic approaches include EMDR, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Solutions Focused Therapy.