All of us have “mental health” just like all of us have physical health - think about it, we don’t suddenly have physical health only when we need to see a physician. We intuitively understand that our bodies are machines that need attendance and nurturing yet we think about the food we put in our bodies and the amount of steps we take in a day but often neglect to track our thoughts and emotions which have a significant impact on our overall mood and well-being. Just like going to the gym requires basic knowledge of the physical body and how it moves in order to improve functioning and flexibility, mental health needs the same awareness and investment in order to develop similar skills. There are small and simple steps to take to improve our mental health in order to live a happier and healthier life.
Here are five essential skills sets to develop on your mental health journey.
- Learn how to identify and label your emotions because it begins the process of how to regulate them. How can you manage how you feel if you have no idea what you are feeling? I like to remind clients when people are feeling chaotic inside, they are often acting in similarly disorganized ways. Consider reading up on emotional intelligence or buying an emotion wheel graphic to improve your emotional vocabulary.
- Learn how to identify where emotions live in your body. We are often used to using somatic language to describe our feelings without even realizing it. Have you ever said something like “there’s a knot in my stomach”? That’s because emotions have a physiological component and getting in touch with where emotional energy exists in the body can help to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, and pent up emotions. My own somatic therapy taught me the importance of identifying somatic feelings, tracking them, and allowing my body to move, stretch, yawn, tremble, and cry to release that energy. Somatic experiencing is a specific type of therapy I am trained in that targets where emotions are in the body. Physical activities such as yoga can also help you develop a more mindful relationship with your body.
- Learn how to care for yourself. Do you struggle with organization? Buy a calendar, set alarms and change your notification settings to allow yourself to focus. Do delicious and healthy meals bring you joy but you find cooking at the end of a work day too stressful sometimes? Go to Trader Joe’s and peruse their pre-made frozen section and pick up some already prepared foods you know you will love that will be stress free. I think you get the picture. Everyone has strengths as well as areas that don’t feel as natural to them - identify what your needs are and learn how to care for yourself AKA give yourself what you need, guilt-free.
- Keep yourself motivated by having a daily to do list within reach. Nothing brings me small moments of joy like crossing items off my to do list while balancing projects. Getting a visual of all the past things I have completed makes me feel proud and gives me a boost to continue the work day. As someone who is not inherently organized, this is an essential way for me to practice self-care (see above tip on caring for yourself). There is psychology behind to-do lists as well because dopamine plays a big role in the science of motivation. It makes us feel good to accomplish things even when they are small and gives us that feeling of instant gratification every time something has been completed. To-do lists are a great way to help you stay mentally focused and a healthy way to reinforce the reward pathway.
- Practice self-compassion. Despite what we may think, shaming ourselves when we make a mistake is not motivating, whatsoever. It often makes us feel worse and can devolve into a shame spiral. “I should have known this relationship was not going to work out” or “I cannot believe I made that stupid mistake at work” are examples of shaming and self-critical thoughts that can actually set off the stress-response system in our bodies. I have asked my clients to imagine how they would feel if someone was saying out loud to them what they were internally telling themselves and the answer is usually something like stressed, sad, angry or afraid. Learning to talk to ourselves in a more kind and gentle way is essential if we want to feel better. Self-compassion is the art of shifting our internal dialogue from self critical to empathetic, understanding, and kind. Self compassion is linked to better coping and resilience, self esteem, and body image. Talk with a therapist about how to develop self compassion.
About the author: Dr. Natalie Zaragoza is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Orange County, CA. She owns an emotionally-focused and somatic-based private practice and is a part time professor. She was born and raised in Southern CA. Follow her for more content @drnataliezaragoza