Everyone has an opinion on mental health tips, but it's hard to know what will actually work. We hear all kinds of ideas and suggestions and some of them are downright annoying. Things like "just change how you think about that" are obnoxious when you're struggling with stress and mental illness. The advice might be overly simplistic or irrelevant. Some suggestions about self-care go behind maintaining our everyday well-being and are, instead, financially unreasonable and capitalistically-inclined.
What can also be annoying, especially as a therapist... is when certain mental health suggestions actually work but are so widely thrown at people that they sound ridiculous. Basic and simple things that won't "cure" anything by any means, but are helpful and powerful tools for everyday mental health maintenance. These are suggestions that even annoy some of us stubborn therapists and the most skeptical among us: we know they work, we suggest them because they work, and we still groan when it's time to do them for ourselves. Here are some widely circulated, annoying-to-hear mental health tips that actually might help:
Journaling regularly is a helpful tool for sorting through our emotions, thoughts, and stressors. It works because it puts our prefrontal cortex to work, the part of our brains responsible for thinking through challenging situations and processing them appropriately. By putting things into words, verbally or in writing (or in some kind of graphic expression!), we clarify our experiences and are able to come to more helpful understandings of ourselves. It releases the pressure and stress we feel when we keep it all floating around in our heads, amorphous and needing to be re-thought about constantly. I can't tell you how many times I've talked with other therapists and even one of us says "something was bothering me and, -dramatic sigh-, I journaled about it and it helped." And the rest of us nod in sympathy: journaling is strangely overpowered.
Taking a Moment to Breathe
"Look lady, I breathe all the time. I'm really upset right now, and you're telling me to breathe?" Hear me out. How we think and feel is generated by our bodies, and our bodily responses are likewise linked to our thinking and feeling. We breathe in certain ways when we are in danger or stressful situations so our bodies can prioritize the internal systems that handle a crisis. Survival and emotions-heavy thinking is important to survive a crisis. We react first, process later. And, when we are calm and safe, our bodies breathe differently. Abstract, problem solving, and long-term processing is available when we are calm and safe.
By purposefully breathing in ways that signal "calm and safe," we encourage a neurological environment that can think more effectively and voice our concerns more effectively. I'm not saying your stress, anger, anxiety, or fear is unreasonable. I'm saying you deserve to be able to fully process and articulate your experience accurately, especially because you are experiencing some form of crisis. Rather than simply reacting and having to clean up later, moving your mind and body into a different level of processing allows you to handle your concerns more effectively. Try inhaling to the count of 4 and exhaling to the count of 6, 3 times. See how you feel. Similarly, relaxing your arms down at your sides or on your lap, palms up, is a helpful tool for staying in effective neurological states.
Regular Sleep Schedule
"Shut up." I know. I hate this one. I like to plan when and how long I sleep depending on variations in my schedule. I like to scroll in exploration of knowledge late at night. After all, I reason, if I'm getting enough hours of sleep, who cares when I actually sleep?
My body cares about when I sleep. Brains and bodies like a degree of predictability: when we sleep, when we eat, when we do certain activities. Being able to anticipate tasks and needs management on a steady basis means we are experiencing safety. While both medicine and the public tend to blame body weight for health problems, the truth is that both are affected by sleep disruptions (Medic et al., 2017) while health is possible at every size (Bacon, 2010). Keeping a regular sleep schedule can contribute to mental health improvements and maintenance. Daily routines are helpful as well.
Maybe you don't need convincing that therapy is helpful. Awesome! But maybe you're skeptical about it. What can therapy do that just dealing with the situation or maybe talking with a friend can't? Therapy, just like all of these tips, is a tool for "dealing with it." Therapy is a unique situation where you enter into a one-sided relationship, on purpose, for your benefit. It gives us the opportunity to put things into words, like journaling, while connecting with someone whose experience and education are focused on supporting you in what you need. It can be helpful to get a perspective on your life that isn't complicated because of existing relationship to that person. And yes, therapists have therapists too. It really can be that helpful.
Your mileage, of course, may vary. Some mental health tips may be helpful tools for you but not others. Similarly, your therapy experience belongs to you. Finding a good therapeutic match is important, as not everyone is for everyone and everything. If you think we might be a good therapeutic match and you're interested in getting started, send me a message!
Dr. Stephanie Bloodworth, PsyD, LMFT
Bacon, L. (2010). Health at every size: The surprising truth about your weight. BenBella Books, Inc..
Medic, G., Wille, M., & Hemels, M. E. (2017). Short-and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and science of sleep, 9, 151.