Are you neglecting your mental health?

MarionMcNultyBy Marion McNulty, Psy.D., psychologist and clinical coordinator, Providence St. Vincent Outpatient Behavioral Health

How's your health?

Most people, when asked that question, think of their physical health – their achy knees, their blood pressure numbers or their allergy flare-ups. We don't think much about our mental health, but it's completely interconnected with our physical health and deserves every bit as much care and attention.

We all go through mental health slumps from time to time, and just like physical ailments, they need early attention so they don't get worse. The problem is, they're not as easy to spot as a sore throat or a runny nose. When you're sliding into a mental slump, your thoughts may become distorted, making it harder to recognize that there's a problem. That's why practicing regular mental-health maintenance is vital.

You already know that you should exercise regularly to maintain your physical health. Think of the following as an exercise program for your mental health.

Care and maintenance of your mental health

The World Health Organization defines mental health as "a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community." As this definition emphasizes, mental health is more than just the absence of mental illness; it's about being a whole, balanced person.

To maintain good mental health, try your best to live a balanced life that nurtures your whole being: mind, body, spirit and social connectedness. Here are 12 of the best things you can do to achieve that:

  • Eat right. Your brain needs healthy nourishment just as much as your body does.
  • Exercise. In addition to the physical benefits, multiple studies show that regular exercise reduces stress, anxiety and depression and improves sleep.
  • Get enough sleep. Insufficient sleep has been clearly linked to a higher risk of mental illness. If you're having trouble getting restful, restorative sleep, talk to your doctor or connect with the Providence Sleep Disorders Centers.
  • Stay connected. Studies show that strong social connections and meaningful relationships are essential to mental health. Stay close to the ones you love.
  • Reflect, meditate, pray, contemplate. Just as we need social time to connect with others, we also need times of solitude for introspection and reflection. Introspection allows you to take a personal inventory so you can make positive changes where needed. Make it a daily habit. Give yourself at least five minutes every morning to be still, quiet your mind and be open to the messages that bubble up from yourself to yourself.
  • Deal with stress. Stress is unavoidable, but don't let it become unmanageable. If something specific is stressing you out, focus on reducing or eliminating the stressor if you can. If you can't, then employ healthy ways to cope with the stress and relax your mind and body, such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, talking with friends and taking regular vacations. If you're having trouble coping, a mental health professional can help.
  • Associate with positive people. Being with people who are constantly negative can have an effect on your own mental health. It's OK to minimize your contact with negative people and choose, instead, to surround yourself with people who are positive.
  • Contribute to your community. Want to feel good? Do good. Volunteer to lend a hand at a food bank or animal shelter, join others to clean up a beach, mentor young people or deliver meals to housebound elders. Find your purpose. Is there a problem in your community that you wish you could change or a niche that needs your help? Roll up your sleeves, get involved and find a way to make a positive difference.
  • Develop your talent. Not everyone can play a piano concerto, but we all have talent. Yours might be baking a spectacular brownie. Haven't found it yet? Keep looking. Try new things, apply yourself and discover the pleasure and confidence to be gained in doing something well.
  • Feed your spirit. Whether it's spending time with your faith community or in nature, listening to music or appreciating fine art, reading or expressing yourself creatively, give yourself time to do the things that bring you joy.
  • Be grateful. Focus less on the annoyances in life and more on the things you are grateful for. As the bumper sticker says, bark less, wag more. Practicing gratitude causes a shift in thinking patterns to a more positive state of mind.
  • Keep things in perspective. If you're fretting about something, consider the Rule of Seven: Will it matter in seven days? Seven weeks? Seven months? Seven years? If it won't matter a few days from now, don't take it so seriously. Focus your energy on the things that matter most, don't sweat the small stuff, and keep your sense of humor.

A daily mental health checkup

There's no need to stress yourself out by trying to balance every part of your life every minute of the day, but do aim for a generally balanced life. Checking in with yourself regularly can help build your self-awareness.

Take a minute during personal reflection times to ask yourself:

  • How am I feeling mentally?
  • How am I feeling physically?
  • What am I doing to feed my spirit?
  • How am I nurturing my social relationships?
  • Where am I in each of these areas on a scale of 1 to 10?
  • Where do I need to focus more attention?

If one of these areas is out of whack, make a course correction. Are you neglecting your spirit because you're working 60 hours a week? Try to dial back your responsibilities a few days a month to carve out some spirit time. Are you neglecting your physical health? Get up and go for a 15-minute walk. When things feel out of balance, refocus on care and maintenance.

Don't hesitate to get help when you need it

Balance, a solid social network, spiritual support, purpose and a realistic perspective can go a long way toward preventing or correcting emotional slumps. But if things continue to slide, don't hesitate to talk to a therapist, social worker, psychologist or other mental health professional. That's especially important if you find that you are hovering around a 3 or higher, or if you notice any of these changes in yourself:

  • Mood shifts: Feeling irritable, snappy, angry, sad, tearful, depressed, out of sorts or just not yourself, especially when there is no apparent reason
  • Behavior changes: Sleeping or eating a lot more or less than usual, or any behavior that deviates from your norm, especially if it becomes bizarre, erratic or dangerous
  • Isolation: Withdrawing, spending more and more time alone
  • Apathy: A lack of interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy
  • Hopelessness: Thoughts such as "I can't take it anymore," "I wish I'd never been born" or "I don't really matter to anyone" are called passive suicidal ideation and are a dangerous sign that help is needed immediately

Most of us wouldn't think twice about seeing a physical therapist for a knee problem, or a mechanic for a car problem. Your emotional health deserves at least the same level of care and respect. Mental health professionals can offer two very effective tools that, when used in combination, can get just about anyone over a mental-health slump:

  • Psychiatric medications: These are extremely useful in helping people regain their emotional footing, and in many cases, only need to be taken on a short-term basis.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Research has found this type of therapy to be highly effective for improving stress, anxiety, depression and other issues.

Good mental health starts in childhood. If you have children, talk to them about mental health the same way you talk to them about maintaining their physical health. Be a model of positive self-care, and encourage and nurture the same behaviors in them. If you got off to a rough start in life, start giving yourself some mental-health TLC from this day forward. As the author Tom Robbins says, "It's never too late to have a happy childhood."


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