Throughout the years I’ve spent as a therapist people have never ceased to amaze me. I’ve seen people suffer through some of the worst imaginable tragedies and come out of the fog stronger than they or anyone could have ever foreseen. One of the most important traits that all of us possess is our ability to be resilient and bounce back from hard times. This is an incredible aspect of being human but it is a necessary one, for no matter who you are or what your position, life will continuously throw curveballs your ways that will add to your stress levels.
Throughout life most of us have experienced mild to moderate depression and or anxiety. Some of us have experienced much more severe depression or anxiety warranting an official diagnosis. There are many reasons for our mental struggles. Some individuals have chemical imbalances which frequently or chronically influence their mood. Some have experienced trauma in their lifetimes and/or tumultuous childhoods that continue to follow them like a shadow. There are really an infinite amount of reasons that can lead people to experience depression, anxiety, or simply increased and overwhelming stress levels.
Years ago while I was receiving training from my mentor, he frequently reviewed a mental health checklist which discussed some of the most important factors that can help someone maintain a healthy mental state. I’ve reviewed the following list with many of the clients I’ve work with and have passed on this information to the therapists I now train. On top of that, when I find myself struggling with the stresses of life and feel as though I’m not at the top of my game, I review how I’m doing in all of these key areas.
3. Engaging Activities
6. Social Activities
In this post, I’ll discuss a bit of each category pointing out why they are important and how you can go about recognizing deficits and begin correcting them. I plan to post separate articles going into much more detail about each specific category in the future.
Sleep – The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep per day for adults (18+). It recommends 9-11 hours of sleep per day for children 6-13 years old. It recommends 8-10 hours per day for teenagers (14-17 years old).
Source: National Sleep Foundation
Some of you may already be saying that either this isn’t realistic or this isn’t anywhere close to what you’re getting. In many ways, like many of the issues I’ll discuss in this article, a problem with sleep can be a chicken-or-the-egg type situation when it comes to mental health. This is why getting the right amount of sleep on a regular basis is one of the most important aspects to being mentally healthy.
If you are experiencing high levels of anxiety or suffer from mood swings, it may be very hard to get to sleep or stay asleep at night. If you are depressed you may feel tired all of the time and sleep well over 9 hours per night, only to wake up still feeling exhausted. In either case, not getting enough sleep or getting too much may be both a symptom and contributor to your mental health issues. If this has been an ongoing issue for you, you should take steps to get closer to a sleep schedule that affords you 7-9 hours per night to be at your highest functioning.
If you’ve tried and tried and tried and can’t seem to get this working, you should consider seeking professional help from a therapist. Consulting with your doctor may be a good idea to rule out any medical issues preventing you from attaining a healthy sleep regimen. They may also recommend medication to assist.
Exercise – Exercise is important for people of all ages in order to maintain a healthy body and a healthy mind. The CDC recommends that adults get 2.5 hours of moderate to intense aerobic activity every week. They also recommend that adults engage in muscle strengthening activities 2 days a week that help to work all muscle groups. Apart from the obvious physical health benefits, exercising can be a great way to blow off steam after a stressful day or week. This could be everything from playing a sport, jogging or taking brisk walks, swimming, weight lifting, etc.
When I recommend increasing physical exercise for my clients, I encourage them to think differently when exercising. Jogging and weight lifting seem to be the most common forms of planned exercise that I see my clients engage in. Many have said that they like to “zone out” and clear their head while exercising. This can be helpful when you need to turn off your brain for a little while every so often, but I believe that you can benefit more from thinking about the things that are causing you stress or making you angry WHILE you exercise. You may find that when doing this it gives you just a little more motivation to do one more set or run a little farther, while also acknowledging your stressors instead of avoiding them. This allows you feel the anger or anxiety caused by these stressors rather than continue to bottle up those emotions while also getting a boost of energy from them.
It’s generally a good idea to get into a routine for your exercise activities so that it becomes a normal part of your week rather than feeling like a chore.
Engaging Activity- Engaging activities are very important for people of all ages to participate in on a daily basis in order to maintain a good quality of mental health. Participating in engaging activities (ie. sports, reading, creative activities such as drawing, painting, writing, playing musical instruments, etc.) help to reduce stress and build self-esteem.
While after a stressful day at work I enjoy grabbing a beer and binge watching series on Netflix as much as the next person but these are passive/escapist coping skills. There’s nothing wrong with using passive or escapist coping skills from time to time so long as it’s done in moderation. Watching too much television, playing too many video games (especially ones you’re so good at you can practically play with your eyes closed), surfing social media can all end up being a time suck that takes away the precious time you have to engage in activities that will help you create something, learn something new, or do something that will make you feel really good about yourself.
If you find yourself really struggling with coming up with a productive hobby for yourself or can’t seem to pull yourself away from the television or your phone, think about what some of your hobbies might have been when you were younger and try to reconnect with them. If you never had any hobbies pick a few things you always wanted to try but never found the time. Look up some videos online about how to get started and get to it!
Aside from being great stress relievers, the hobbies/engaging activities that we participate in play a very large role in making up who we are and how we view ourselves. Being able to see yourself learn new things or increase your abilities will boost your self-esteem and give you more ways to connect with others who have similar interests.
This area is generally something we’re much better at as children, but as we gain more responsibilities as adults, it can be very hard to find the time. Between working (sometimes multiple jobs), taking care of family, and doing everything it takes to keep up your home, it can seem like there’s not enough time in the day or not enough energy to add something new. If it feels like this for you, consider cutting down time that you engage in the escapist activities (television, video games, social media, etc.).
Sunlight- It is very important that individuals get a healthy exposure to sunlight daily. Lack of exposure to sunlight has been correlated with depression and other mental health issues. Some people are extra sensitive to this and suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where they will exhibit severe symptoms of depression during late fall and winter months.
Whether you have Seasonal Affective Disorder or not it is important to make sure that you are getting enough daily exposure to sunlight as numerous studies have linked the physical and mental health benefits of vitamin D.
For many individuals who are depressed or severely anxious, they may feel compelled to stay inside and block out the outside world. Lack of direct exposure to natural sunlight over extended periods of time may actually exacerbate depression and anxiety. If you feel as though you’ve been spending too much time inside for whatever reason, even though you may have to force yourself, get outside. Sit out front of your house or apartment. Take a walk around the block.
If you work in an office without windows, take a walk during your lunch break or take short breaks throughout the day to get some air. If you work a night shift regularly and find yourself awake and working all night while sleeping most of the day, try to make it a point to stay awake long enough while the sun is still outside (or talk to your doctor about supplements).
Nutrition- What a person eats can impact their mental health in a variety of ways. Hunger can cause low energy, irritability, anxiety etc. Overeating can cause lethargy and health problems over time related to obesity. Three important questions to consider when you’re taking a look at your nutrition are “Am I eating/drinking often enough and in proper proportions?”, “What is the quality of the food products I consume?”, “Am I consuming anything that may be having a negative impact on my mood?”
Depression and anxiety both can make someone lose their appetite. Like many things on this list, not eating regularly can be both a cause and effect of depression, anxiety, and/or increased stress levels. It’s important to make sure that you aren’t skipping meals whenever possible. It’s also important to make sure that you’re drinking enough water from day to day as dehydration and certainly impact your mood.
When we are feeling high levels of stress sometimes we go for whatever’s easiest or comfort foods that aren’t necessarily the best for us. In a perfect world, fast food, candy, ice cream, sugary drinks, and all of the other things we love and are easy would be healthy too, but sadly, that’s not the case. Moderation is the key when it comes to the foods we love but don’t love us back.
If you feel like your nutrition is one of the key factors impacting your mental health and can’t seem to get on track, it may be helpful to schedule an appointment with a nutritionist to help meet your needs. Talk to your doctor and they may be able to make a referral.
Social activities- Engaging in social activities can be a good way of reducing stress and is necessary for building and maintaining our support systems. Whether you are an extrovert who absolutely needs to be around others in order to recharge your batteries or an introvert who needs more alone time to recharge, it is important for everyone to spend enjoyable time connecting with others.
Spending enjoyable time with others can help boost our mood and remind us that we’re not alone as we go through the struggles of everyday life. For the most part, any activities that we generally enjoy are made more enjoyable when we do them with others. When overwhelmed with stress, feeling depressed, or anxious we may begin to decline offers to go to parties, meet up with friends for dinner, or attend certain events that we used to find enjoyable. If for whatever reason you stop doing the majority of things that bring you joy, unhappiness will be unavoidable.
Building and maintaining our friendships is very important. Having individuals to turn to when we need emotional support when we’re struggling is one of the best ways to cope with stress however, if the overwhelming majority of the time you spend with a friend is using them to be your “personal therapist” they may grow tired of this sort of relationship as they are giving much more than they are receiving. When engaging in enjoyable social activities, everyone is gaining.
Keeping Track of These Factors
As humans we are imperfect creatures. Some circumstances cause us to put off certain areas of our life due to time, energy, and money. When this happens it’s far too easy for us to get into a rut and establish a new routine of neglecting ourselves. Review this checklist and following questions for yourself now, and every few weeks. The earlier you can catch and correct problems, the less negative impact they will have on your ability to function at your highest level.
Sleep: Am I getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night most nights of the week? If not, what’s getting in the way and how can I fix this?
Exercise: What ways do I normally get aerobic and strength conditioning exercise? Is it enough (2.5 hours moderate-intense aerobic, 2 days muscle strengthening a week)? If not, what can I do to change this.
Engaging Activities: What are my favorite hobbies apart from escapist coping skills (television, video games, social media, other escapist)? How often have I engaged in them over the past month? If you don’t have any regular engaging activities: What did I used to like to do for fun that I haven’t in a while? What is something I’ve never tried but might be fun or I might like to learn?
Sunlight: Have I spent enough time outside each day over the last few weeks? Do I tend to get more depressed in the winter months? (If so, you’ll need increased exposure to sunlight)
Nutrition: Am I making sure to eat meals regularly (breakfast, lunch, dinner) without skipping too many? Have I been overeating over the last month? Is my diet a healthy one? What can I do to make changes to any problem areas
Social Activities: Who are the people I enjoy spending time with the most that are easily accessible? How often have I spent time with them over the last few weeks? If I haven’t seen the people I enjoy spending time with enough, how can I change this?
In future posts I plan on addressing some of the areas discussed here in greater detail and hopefully answer some questions you may have. Remember that you have the ability to be resilient and can tackle whatever life throws your way. If you’re doing a good job in all the areas I’ve listed above, you’ll be at your best as you’re working through life’s challenges. As always, if you feel that you can’t get your life back in balance on your own, consider seeking professional help.
-The Web Shrink
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