As word of the importance of mental health spreads, health care has begun a revolution around a central rediscovery: mental health is health, just like physical health. Widespread efforts to end the stigma associated with therapy, to integrate behavioral and physical health care, and to improve the resources and supports available for mental health needs have facilitated an increase in the number of people receiving mental health care.
However, although our understanding of the importance of mental health has increased, common knowledge about behavioral health has not. Most people know, for example, that eating healthy and getting regular exercise are important facets of physical health — but could they list analogous tips for keeping their mental health in good shape?
In a recent webinar hosted by Mental Health America (MHA), Israa Nasir, MHC-LP, explained that people have the power to care for their mental health. “In the same way as we have physical health and physical illness, we have mental health and mental illness,” Nasir said. “What that really means is, mental health is something everybody has. In the same way we try to improve our physical health before we get sick, we can do a lot of things to balance our mental health before we get sick.”
Although many people feel as though they have to make big changes to feel better – often changes that are unrealistic or require a prohibitive amount of time and energy – small habits can make the biggest impact. While stress, lifestyle habits, and bad physical health can harm mental health, small lifestyle changes, such as practicing emotional regulation and being intentional, have the power to improve it. “Being intentional means being present and ‘unitasking’ in the moment that you’re in,” Nasir said. Instead of letting yourself fall into a passive habit, like zoning out scrolling through social media or watching TV, Nasir suggests staying engaged in the moment and acting deliberately. “It’s easy to slip passively into unhealthy patterns when we’re not engaged with our wellness.”
Being intentional is also a key tool for keeping tabs on mental health. Staying grounded, engaged, and present makes it easier to recognize early warning signs when mental health worsens and helps with proactively taking care of mental health, in addition to improving the quality of relationships with oneself and others. “Be an active member in your life,” Nasir said. “You have all these goals around your physical health. You want to take that same energy into your mental health.” With better mental health, managing stress, time, and relationships gets easier. Good mental health means feeling energized and empowered to tackle not just daily tasks, but also unexpected stress or disruptions. In other words, maintaining your mental health is a means of manually improving your resilience.
The changes one could make to start practicing this intentionality do not need to be intrusive or time-consuming. “There is a lot of research out there that shows that engaging in even three minutes of a wellness activity has the same physiological and emotional effect of doing it for 60 minutes.” Micro-goals still achieve gradual, overall changes to mental health; after all, it’s better to make even a small positive change than to give up and change nothing at all.
“Anything that is worth doing well is also worth doing not as well,” Nasir said. “Eating well is worth doing 100% of the time. It’s also worth doing 50% of the time. Having time in the morning as a routine is worth doing 100% of the time, but it also has a mental health impact if you only do it 50% of the time.”
It can be tempting to decide to make sweeping changes, like committing to an hour of exercise every day, cooking healthy food for yourself every day, or going to sleep two hours earlier than usual every day, for example. Smaller goals still make positive change and are more feasibly achieved thanks to tricks like habit stacking.
Habit stacking means deciding on a small lifestyle change and finding the simplest way to tack it onto something else you already do every day. For example, if you want to start taking a daily supplement, and you know you drink coffee every morning, putting the supplement bottle next to the coffee machine would be an easy way to stack the new habit on a preexisting one. Building habits atop each other in this manner increases your chances of making permanent change, especially in the face of stressful disruptions that could easily derail larger, more difficult lifestyle changes.
Checking Into You
Another key component of practicing good mental health is checking in with yourself. Ask yourself when the last time you ate, drank, or took a break was, if something is bothering you or getting you down, and most importantly, “What do I need right now?” Especially for people raised to be women, who have been taught to be responsible for the well-being of everyone around them, it can be difficult to remember to not only check in with others but also with themself.
This includes recognizing when you might need to turn down an invitation to an event or another task at work, which women may also have difficulty with due to social pressures and gendered expectations. “It’s literally like the oxygen mask in a plane. You have to put yours on first before you can put it on for somebody else,” Nasir said. By checking in with yourself, you not only have an easier time remembering to take care of yourself, but you also gain an understanding of your emotional state. If you were feeling restless or agitated, you might be able to pinpoint the source of that stress, which in turn improves your ability to process and manage it.
Checking in with yourself is a key component of a major mental health technique: emotional regulation. “It’s a way of learning how you react to the world around you and how you can improve that reaction to a response so that you have lesser conflict, you have lesser stress, and you have more resilience,” Nasir explained.
Regulate and Recalibrate
Emotional regulation means being conscious of what you are doing and feeling in response to your environment, and why. “When the person in front of us is exhibiting an emotional reaction, we tend to respond with a similar reaction,” Nasir said. If your spouse has a difficult day at work and comes home in a bad mood, for example, you may find yourself mirroring their reaction and being short-tempered in return.
Through emotional regulation, recognizing the emotions you are feeling can offer some relief and clarity to act wisely. Many people, especially those raised as men who faced the expectations that come with masculinity, get caught up in an emotional reaction without knowing what they are actually feeling, which often leads to confusing sadness, stress, and frustration with anger and can result in angry outbursts.
By identifying the actual emotions you are feeling, you gain a clearer understanding of what’s going on inside your head. “It’s so important to know what you are feeling, because then you can actually manage and process it better,” Nasir said. “There’s a big difference between ‘I am angry’ versus ‘I’m feeling angry.’ When we distance ourselves from intense emotions, it really helps us process them, observe them, and be able to work through them.
As long as you feel like you are the emotion, there’s no distance.” Clarity and space are key to stopping a negative spiral and regaining self-control. “When we take a few seconds to slow down and take deep breaths, we are less likely to say things that we might regret later on or do things that are out of character for us, or essentially have a blow-up.” Over time, the power to keep your emotions in check can also improve your relationship with yourself, as it stops you from acting in ways you may feel bad about later.
There are many online resources available to help with practicing emotional regulation. “These are skills you build over time,” Nasir said. “Emotional regulation is kind of like going to the gym. You practice it, and you get better at it. It’s not anything you’re born with. It doesn’t have a genetic component. Just because you weren’t taught as a child doesn’t mean you can’t learn as an adult, or if you have one or two big blow-ups where you couldn’t regulate your emotions, that doesn’t mean you can’t go back to these skills at another time.”