No One, No Couple, and No Family is Above Therapy: A Therapist’s 15 Cents on What Mental Health REALLY Means and 15 Tips to Improve it.

By Michele Levin

As one of the owners of a Mental Health practice, I’ve spent a lot of time in my head over last month regarding “Mental Health Month”. The world right now is a heavy place. Fact is, we were seeing a spike in depression, anxiety, loneliness, and substance abuse BEFORE the pandemic.

Fast forward to now, combined with everything we have collectively experienced within the last two years, the psychological ripple effect on our mental health is very real and very serious. More than ever, we must prioritize taking intentional action to take care of our mental health.

Rather than trying to find the “right” thing to say, or reposting constant statistics and facts, or expressing how “mental health awareness should not be just a month, it should be every day,” I’ve decided to just share with you some things our team has learned about Mental Health and our recommendations. Not from the endless years we all spent in school and the heavy literature we’ve all engulfed; from ourselves and what happens every day within the walls of Blueprint Mental Health.

Let’s start with how we define “mental health.”

Mental health is so much more than “psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing.” To us, it’s how you feel. It’s how you think. It’s how you act. It’s how you communicate. It’s how you cope. It’s how you regulate your emotions. It’s knowing your triggers, while also owning and being accountable for how you react when you are triggered. It’s how you think about people, relationships, and the world around you. It’s how you think and feel about yourself. It’s how you treat yourself and others. It’s knowing what you deserve. It’s knowing what your boundaries are in order to set them with others. It’s being aware of your defense mechanisms and the areas you need to work on that impact your relationships. It’s being able to step back from your perspective and understand someone else’s. It’s being able to truly listen to someone else and try to see where they are coming from, even if you disagree with them. It’s being open to feedback and change. It’s being honest with yourself and those around you. It’s doing things for yourself that make you feel good, while staying away from things that aren’t good for you. It’s managing and coping with stress in healthy ways and rewiring the unhealthy coping habits that are self-destructive. It’s the ability to get through adversity and build up resilience, while at the same time acknowledging hurt, pain and struggle. It’s reaching out for support when you need it and knowing that asking for help is a human need and not a weakness. It’s building a meaningful life, being present in the moment instead of just passing time and going through the motions. It’s accepting things as they are that can’t be changed while taking control over changing things in your life that you can. It’s how all of this was modeled to you from your parents/caregivers and how you were brought up. We could go on, and on, and on. Mental Health is literally EVERYTHING.

With that being said, here are 15 ways to work on your mental health so you can work toward living your best life:

1.) Limit Social Media and catch your judgements. Catch yourself from comparing yourself and your life to others, especially based off other’s social media. When you are scrolling, scroll mindfully instead of mindlessly. Check what information you’re absorbing and how it’s impacting you. Remember that what people are posting online is what people are intentionally putting out there. That “perfect family picture” might have come off from an explosive fight the night prior, with parents threatening leaving and the kids storming off. That teenager that “always is out with friends” can still feel lonely and be struggling with depression and anxiety. That person who “is always posting selfies” might have struggled with their self-esteem their whole life, or struggling with an eating disorder, and working on building their confidence through sharing more pictures. That picture of “the perfect couple” could be going through fertility treatments. That job promotion someone posts doesn’t include all the other positions they went for and didn’t get. The point is that for all the pictures and moments you see, there’s a whole life that you do not. We don’t see the fights, the depression, the loneliness, the struggles, the medical scares, the grief and loss, the addiction tearing through a family…. You just never know what people are truly going through.

2.) Be vertical more than horizontal. In general, evaluate your routine and lifestyle. Way too often we hear in sessions from our teens/young adults that their day is routinely spent laying in their bed and scrolling on their phone. Higher screen time hours correlate with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Don’t quote me on this, but I would bet it also leads to increased difficulty focusing and procrastinating. People feel better when they tend to be more active and feel worse when they are more sedentary. Work on a healthy sleep routine, keep your days relatively structured, be mindful (and not rigid) of what you’re putting in your body and get outside often.

3.) Stay in the present moment and pay attention to your thoughts. Most people are in their heads all day long, either worrying about the future, what someone might be thinking about them, replaying something from the past, stressing over things they have to do…. It’s all time spent thinking that takes you away from just experiencing the present moment and what the present moment has to offer. As my husband John (and co-owner of our practice) often says; “If you’re lying on the beach, listening to Bob Marley’s “One Love” but you’re in your head and thinking about the work you have to do and everything stressful in your life- then you’re not really on that beach.” Pay attention to not only what you’re thinking about in the moment, but how you generally think about the world around you. Notice patterns of worrying, criticism, judgement, and negativity and make conscious efforts to shift towards turning towards being more in the present moment.

4.) Learn to control, understand, and cope with your emotions, while also managing stress in a healthy way. Chronic stress leads to chronic health problems. Learn how to notice your feelings and sit with them. Let yourself FEEL. Don’t avoid them, don’t push them down, don’t numb them away, don’t let them drive your behavior… allow yourself to feel them, identify what they are and where they are coming from in order to help you cope with them. Take notice of your unhealthy coping mechanisms- whether it be self-medicating, numbing, escaping, avoiding, exploding, taking it out on yourself, taking it out on others, procrastinating… think you get the point. Learn how to control your emotions so your emotions don’t control you, destruct your relationships, and cloud your perspective.

5.) Talk to strangers, tend to your relationships and be open to feedback. (Warning: This is a long one. Given that I specialize in relationships I can’t help myself. There will be a whole article in the future about relationships.) Ok, I’m about to sound old (please don’t tell the teenagers that I work with). When I went to college, when we got to a class early, we interacted and small talked with other people when we got there. It’s how we got to know each other. We had to – we didn’t have the option to instantly bury our heads into a cell phone. Nowadays, as soon as people sit down anywhere, they immediately pull out their cell phone. All of these are missed opportunities for simple basic human interactions. Be open with those around you. Initiate face to face contact. Smile at someone. Look someone in the eyes and say hi and thank you when you’re buying something on the check-out line. Take the time to connect with people that are around you. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know at school, work, or the gym. You never know how it might make someone’s day to feel noticed. We have been in an epidemic of loneliness for years. Take time to think about others. Check in with people you care about. When someone does reach out and ask how you’re doing, tell the truth. Be open to feedback and reflective about yourself. Gaslighting and Narcissism has gained a lot of popularity lately, it’s important to know what those words truly mean and not quickly jump to a conclusion about someone else and label them a Narcissist. We have to be aware that we can also have toxic traits that trigger other people- it’s not always the other person. When you mess up and say something hurtful, own it and apologize. Apologizing goes a REALLY long way- if you struggle with apologizing for how your word or actions make others feel your relationships will suffer. Know what you need to work on in order to heal. Take responsibility for your actions and if you are defensive or passive aggressive. Process through your hurt in past relationships instead of labeling yourself with trust issues. Don’t bring past relationship unhealed issues from someone else, into a new relationship and project them on someone new. “If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people that didn’t cut you”. A new relationship deserves a fresh start, if you are unable to provide that to someone then work on yourself until you can. Know your boundaries, don’t avoid or dismiss red flags, and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Listen to your nervous system in relationships, it will guide you.

6.) Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. There’s a whole book on this, it’s literally called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” by Dr. Richard Carlson. Recognize when you’re stressing or reacting over the “small stuff”, when you’re making assumptions, when you’re taking things personally and learn to let it go.

7.) Do you and let others be. Think less of what other people will think and just do you! Notice when you’re being influenced and ground yourself. If you’re changing yourself when you’re around someone or a group- than you’re not truly connecting with that person or group, you’re trying to fit in. People you truly connect with should help you feel comfortable being yourself in your own skin. Think for yourself and make your own decisions based off what feels right for you- not based on what others think or what social media says is “right”. You don’t need to agree with others if their ways or opinions are different than yours, and you certainly don’t need to express your opinion constantly and put others down on social media when there’s a post you don’t agree with. Putting down others to try to prove a point isn’t cool and it also doesn’t prove your point. Social media is incredibly divisive- don’t let it be and don’t let yourself be manipulated by it. If you won’t be open to understand or embrace differences, at a bare minimum learn to tolerate without reacting internally and externally. Simply… let others be. How you treat people matters and is a reflection of your character.

8.) LISTEN & COMMUNICATE. We cannot stress this one enough! Tell people, out loud, how you feel in a healthy way. If you don’t communicate how you feel, it doesn’t give people around you an opportunity to hear you or to make changes. What we bottle up gets internalized as depression, anxiety, anger and resentment. There is a biological release of cortisol when you express your emotions, literally where the phrase “get it off your chest” comes from. It’s physically healthy to communicate and crucial for doing your part in a healthy relationship. Just as important is learning to truly listen. Listening is not just the act of hearing someone talk, it’s genuinely stepping into their shoes and understanding how they’re feeling and where they are coming from, even if your perspective is different. Ask questions to help you better understand and reflect what you’re getting from them to make sure it’s on point with their intention. If you’re reacting, you are not listening. *If you don’t feel like you can open up to the people in your life, then take it to the journal and write out how you feel.*

9.) How you talk to yourself and about yourself matters. Know your worth. How we feel about ourselves and how we view ourselves impacts everything. If you’ve seen the movie Perks of Being a Wallflower, then you know the famous line; “we accept the love we think we deserve”. How you treat yourself sets the standard for how others can treat you. If you are consistently putting yourself down, it sets the tone that it’s ok for others to put you down. We teach people how to treat us by what we allow. At the same time, you are in your head talking to yourself all day long. We often ask the question to our clients “If someone else talked to you the way you talk to yourself, would that be ok with you?”. If that answer is a hard no, it’s time to work on yourself.

10.) Know the things that make you happy, both in the moment and in the long run. Increase time spent having FUN and force yourself to create balance in your life. Stop chasing destination happiness (“I’ll be happy when….”), focusing on the grind and the “stuff”. Focus on the positives, what you have and what you’re grateful for. We’re in a world now where everything is fast paced and “working towards the next goal” and “for the social media post”- slow down and allow yourself to be and appreciate where you’re at. Plant the seeds to work towards your future goals, while at the same time being present in the now. Be intentional with your mindset and do more things that make you feel happy and fulfilled- what you focus on grows. Know when you need to slow down and take a day to yourself to self-soothe when you’re having a tough time and need to unwind. (We might be biased, but we really believe that spending time with puppies and dogs can be a game changer on a rough day.)

12.) Hold yourself accountable and take responsibility for your actions. Know what you need to work on, own it, and do the work. Take control over the things you can to make changes in your life. Recognize that you have choices everywhere. Take responsibility for the energy that you’re exerting around you and make changes to help yourself feel better. When your words or actions impact someone else, apologize. Taking responsibility for yourself, your growth, and the ability to take action in order to make changes will help you recognize that you have so much more control over your life and mental health than it might seem.

13.) Be HONEST. With yourself and others. With how you feel. With what you need. When you need help. When you’re struggling. When you can’t do something. When you have to let go.

14.) If you’re a parent- model to your kids all of the above. Their biggest influencer on their own mental health development… big gulp… is from you. Learning from you. Absorbing from you. Watching you – how you cope, how you communicate, how you express your emotions, how you take care of yourself, how you model relationships, how you model self-esteem and boundaries, how you communicate with their other parent (together or not) … everything. Taking the best care of your Mental Health is also taking the best care of your kids.

15.) No one, no couple, and no family is above therapy. Let other people support you and help you. Some of us are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and addiction simply through our genetics. Whether it’s struggling internally or a reaction to external circumstances, there is no shame in taking anti-depressants and other psychotropic medication. Life can be very overwhelming and to be blunt, people can be dealt some really shitty cards that they have absolutely no control over. How people are brought up and traumatic experiences can have long standing impacts on them and their relationships. Try to avoid feeling shameful and ask for help.

Thanks for reading this far. If you need help with any of these things, or simply need someone to talk to and an ear to listen, give therapy a shot. Therapy is not only for those who are struggling, it’s a space to check in with yourself about how you’re doing, how you’re taking care of yourself and how you’re handling things.

Anyone else think your Mental Health is just as important as your Physical Health? Mostly everyone goes to a doctor for check-ups… we think it’s just as crucial for everyone to have a therapist for emotional check-ups. Personally, we believe that your Mental Health is literally EVERYTHING.

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