May / June 2016
By Matt Brown, Ph.D., LMFT-S
Over the past several decades, we have experienced increasing awareness of health concerns and how they impact our lives. We are frequently inundated with information from empirical studies, reality TV, and our own lived experiences; all exposing us to the dangers and benefits of taking care of ourselves. It can be overwhelming to sift through all the things you should and should not be doing to achieve your optimal well-being. Fortunately, research is increasingly identifying areas of our lives that have the biggest impact on overall mental health. And just like your Primary Care Provider is able to conduct a regular physical exam focused on key indicators of health, this article will allow you to check in with yourself using key areas of mental health. We will focus on your relationships, stress, and mindset.
It is now well established that social relationships have an important impact on our mental health. In fact, our relationships are the single biggest predictor of our happiness. Recent research has shown that both relationship quantity and quality affect our mental health in positive and negative ways. When considering your own mental health, you may want to ask yourself how much time you are spending with those people who are important to you (quantity) and what that time looks like (quality). Are you being selective in your obligations, prioritizing time with family and friends? When you are with your loved ones, do you make intentional effort to connect through conversation or activities? If you find yourself lacking in this area, find ways to respectfully say no to those things that take you away from relationships and make the effort to connect when you are with those people you care about.
Research has shown that stress itself is not the culprit of mental health problems; rather, it is the reactions we have to daily stressors that contribute to problems like depression and anxiety. How do you handle these daily stressors? Do you find yourself becoming emotionally or mentally flooded when confronted with seemingly small challenges? You may need to step back and take a look at how you are handling stress. The list of ways to better handle stress is too lengthy for this article, but it includes several things you might expect (e.g., exercise, deep breathing, meditation, etc.). Something else you might try is laughing. Laughter has been shown to have multiple health benefits, including boosting immune system functioning, physiological relaxation, and reduction of pain and stress. Find time to exercise your sense of humor!
Perhaps due to our social nature, we often compare ourselves to those around us. While there may be some benefits to this behavior (e.g., making positive changes to emulate those we admire), we need to guard against the tendency to focus on how we fall short when compared to others. Focusing on what we are lacking often leads to selfinterested behaviors aimed at keeping up with the Jones’ in an attempt to measure up. The problem is that this does not lead to our intended outcome and has been shown to negatively impact mental health. Conversely, focusing on giving of ourselves has the opposite effect. For example, several studies have shown that when it comes to money, we report more satisfaction spending it on others rather than ourselves. We also find deep meaning and purpose when we are engaged in meeting the needs of others. Similarly, and ever-growing body of research has shown that focusing on what we do have and expressing gratitude is linked to positive mental health. When was the last time you gave of yourself to better someone else’s life? How often do you take time to reflect on those things for which you are grateful? If your answers reflect a need to rededicate yourself, you might start by developing a regular time to reflect, write, or talk about what you are grateful for. Opportunities to serve others are everywhere, and we often find the hardest part is not having enough time. You may start small by finding ways to serve those closest to you in small but meaningful ways.
Hopefully, you have had some time to reflect on areas where you are doing well and some areas where your efforts could lead to increased well-being. As with any positive change we make, something is always better than nothing. No matter how small your change efforts, you are moving in the right direction. Motivation increases as we act and you can create positive feedback loops that lead to improved mental health.