Wendy Hawkins, LCSW

Empower! Educate! Evolve!

Building the Mental Health Toolbox

Building the Mental Health Toolbox

Building the Mental Health Toolbox

As with all tasks, having the proper tools empowers one to be prepared, knowledgeable and ultimately successful. When thinking of mental health and developing one’s sense of well-being there is no difference. Building a Mental Health Toolbox is essential to the positive evolution of one’s mental health overall. If we all adapt this mindset, then we’re all under construction. So grab your hardhat and let’s get busy!

 

Understand the diagnostic label

Whether it’s a therapist, a close friend or even your own research that finally attributes your troubles to a mental illness or disorder of sorts, it can be a challenge to integrate the diagnostic label as a part of your existence. Although many find relief in finally understanding why a happy life has been so hard to come by, accepting the new label may be as difficult as adjusting to a third arm or sixth toe. And that’s okay. That extension of your persona has likely been in existence for a large part of your life. A new name for a characteristic of your psyche doesn’t make you less of a human and most certainly doesn’t define you. A diagnostic label is meant to classify you by a set of observable traits to determine the treatment most suitable for you. But in no way is this meant to segregate all clients with one label as the exact same – each person is an individual with specific challenges, experiences and varying degrees of these traits. Every client living with anxiety, PTSD or depression is unique beyond the diagnostic label used in doctor and insurance offices across the country and its important that they are treated as such.

By embracing your label, you take the first step in acceptance of who you are, a key element of the self-love necessary to evolve. There is a possibility that you, or those close to you have subconsciously adopted a stereotype of certain labels, and working through the stigma can also sometimes be a part of learning how to utilize your mental health toolbox. Imagine yourself without the label and any of the characteristics that may have come of it. Would you be as strong of a person? Would your emotional intuition be as fine-tuned? Would your resilience be as elastic? Though you may feel that your label contributed to unpleasant experiences and traits, the silver lining is that you had several opportunities to develop important survival skills in the process. Now that you’ve arrived at the phase of your life to want to evolve from your mental problems, your subsequent emotional intelligence continues to stick around to catapult you through life’s never-ending challenges. Love yourself and embrace your label, because as troublesome as it’s been in the past, it has made you beautifully strong enough to take on this evolution.

 

Maintaining physical well-being

The body can act as a remote control for the mind with buttons for relaxation, mood boost, patience, energy and the list goes on, as both are directly linked. To maintain the well-being of your body is to ensure a balanced foundation for the mind to solve life’s challenges. Efforts into continuous well-being automatically propel the mind’s evolution, clarity and awareness, so it’s well worth the daily undertaking.

Sleep

A set bedtime with plenty of hours to sleep can begin the habitual process of physical well-being. Everyone’s needs for adequate rest vary, but 6-8 hours should be the daily minimum to ensure physical and mental health fitness. A good night’s rest goes beyond feeling refreshed in the morning, with benefits building up in your heart, weight and of course your mind. During those hours of shut-eye your brain is also working to remove mental waste, like the toxic byproducts that contribute to degenerative brain disorders. It’s also working hard to cement memories and new skills you may have learned (like learning to battle anxiety!) Refreshing rest also contributes to better emotional regulation, an essential within the Mental Health Toolbox.

Cognition, attention and decision-making is enhanced with the right amount of zzz’s, making life that much less challenging just by closing your eyes every night. Loving yourself means loving your body, and that can be as easy as cuddling up under your covers and drifting to dreamland. There is empowerment in pillows when it comes to evolution!

Healthy Nutrition

Once you’ve absorbed a solid amount of rest and the sun has begun tickling your skin with its first rays of Vitamin D, nourishment should be the next priority to feed the body, as it’s likely been more than 8 hours since your last meal! Regenerating with the right nutrition is just as important as rest, and making time for eating right impacts your energy and mood for the day. Taking a little bit of time each day to understand your body and adopting healthy eating habits adds another strengthening layer of physical well-being. A good rule of thumb is to remember that the Earth herself provides many of the nutrients you need to feel optimal, so it’s easier to differentiate from the processed, sugary, greasy weaknesses that slow your body’s flow.

Exercise and physical activity

Another essential tool in the Mental Health Toolbox is exercise. The daily challenges of stress can be immediately combated with weapons of feel-good hormones. These are generated with the physical demands of exercise, and it doesn’t take an expensive personal trainer to get the job done. If your life is too busy and working out is an intimidating schedule shift, take a step back and identify areas in your daily tasks that can easily convert into a mini cheat exercise. Something as simple as opting for the stairs at your office building, or a nice 15-minute stroll during lunch can make the difference in your brain boosting chemicals. Even squeezing in 10 squats in the bathroom stall every time you make a run to the loo can get the blood going. A 30, 15 or even 10-minute commitment to muscle movement beats hours-long mental drains that affect your mood, productivity and sense of well-being.

Life Balance

Understand that your mind and body are one, and the two constantly communicate to ensure optimal existence. The key is to learn the language of your physical self to establish ongoing well-being. Become aware and listen internally. One of the most effective tools in your toolbox is developing a healthy sense of balance in all areas of your life. The Wheel of Life is a great place to start!!


Healthy lifestyle choices

When making the conscious decision to prioritize mental health, what is your motivation? Taking a holistic approach to a mental evolution? Reducing your depression or anxiety? Feeling like life is worth living? Better relationships with your loved ones? Maintaining employment? The get-up-and-go reasoning varies, but it’s important to keep a list of your reasons in constant visibility to serve as a reminder in making healthy lifestyle choices daily. Your lifestyle choices are those that you make determining your life and behavior, with a direct association to your preferences and values. Your motivation to prioritize your mental health is a strong indicator of your values.

To make the right choices, you must take a step back and determine first the areas in which you recognize your self-love practices. Are you sleeping enough and eating well? Is your monthly gym membership going to good use and are the dog leashes constantly missing from their wall hooks? Then think to yourself, in which areas can your lifestyle decisions improve to better align with your values and motivation for improving your mental health? Here’s a quick quiz to get you thinking and reflecting on your lifestyle choices.

Once you get your quiz results, an easy start to making better lifestyle choices is to make a list of the obvious not-so-great choices. Things like drinking excessively, eating fast food multiple times a day or going through a pack of cigarettes in 48 hours. You’ll find that integrating better habits like exercise and good rest make the removal of the bad list much easier, all while boosting your mood, health and progress toward a better lifestyle! Even more eye opening, as your bad list habits fade, so do your chances of chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease, cancer and many other conditions. That life balance that you’ve begun to work on will be an incredibly important tool within your Mental Health Toolbox.

A good way to structure your mental health maintenance is by relying on daily routines to keep these lifestyle choices in check. Aside from reinforcing good habits, they give you a sense of control that gradually makes these choices automatic. Just as your bad habits once required no effort, your new, healthy habits will become second nature! This further ensures longer bouts of mental stability refined and ready to tackle obstacles that perhaps once debilitated you.

Remember that learning to utilize the tools within your Mental Health Toolbox is a gradual process and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed but just don’t quit! Starting small is okay! Thankfully, good habits get stronger with each repetition, while the bad ones shrivel away with each neglected urge. Here are a few tricks to overcoming the challenges that sometimes come with learning new skills and retraining your brain.

Yoga

Science and personal experience can reinforce your faith in exercise, but one particular activity has begun to make a name for itself in the realm of mental health. Yoga, an ancient Indian practice integrating breathing techniques and postures has been associated with improved health and happiness. The practice promotes health throughout the body while reinforcing self-awareness, two of the most important tools in your Mental Health Toolbox for self-care.Yoga is to the mind what cardio is to the body. From a mental health standpoint, yoga trains the brain circuits involved in stress response. Most people respond to stress with adrenaline and/or cortisol in the blood, which in turn create the rapid heartbeat, breath and other nervous system symptoms that we feel during stress. In a person who practices yoga regularly, the relaxation signal in the brain can be turned on by engaging in a pose to slow or even stop the stress response. This tool can then be used to counter stress on demand when combined with awareness, which is bolstered with the regular breathing and meditation techniques learned in yoga.

Regular yoga practice is a self-soothing ritual that promotes an ongoing relaxation and slowed thought process that inhibits anxiety and other negative feelings. Connecting the breath to the body via yoga also enhances the internal listening process with the body, so your mind is more in tune with your physical needs to stimulate consistent well-being. In addition, regular practice is also a healthy way to release built-up emotional energy that tends to calcify and clog our efforts to mental health maintenance. By integrating yoga into your mental health routine, you ensure a regular cleansing that complements your self-care routine utilizing and important tool within your Mental Health Toolbox. Try some of these easy poses to get the blood flowing!!

Brain cardio, grounding techniques and meditation

The beautiful unraveling of life happens in this very moment. Unfortunately, it’s easy for many of us to get entangled in past stress or worries of what lies ahead. The reality of present life moments is robbed by the thief of thoughts, holding our minds prisoners to invisible imaginations. Try to picture life as a tightrope with no net. It’s obvious that one would have to journey through with a carefully balanced, inch-by-inch forward progression to survive, right? Now think, how often are your eyes off the tightrope? How often are your letting the present moment slip away? Is your reality surviving?

To stay on the tightrope mindfulness is the star tool within your Mental Health Toolbox. It is a strategy that peels your identity from your thoughts, as your thoughts can sometimes be an unreliable source in the sphere of mental illness. With mindfulness, rather than be your thoughts, you are above them as their creator and observer. Your higher self goes beyond the mental noise that can sometimes overwhelm your body and soul. An easy way to remind yourself to slow the thoughts is to take a deep, long breath, then follow the next five to ten breaths thereafter. If you do this constantly, you may start noticing how often you actually hold your breath unconsciously when intense anxiety or PTSD thoughts start clouding the mind. Observing the breath helps brings you back to the present moment. Mindfulness and a healthy state of mind go hand in hand.

There are various techniques that promote and preserve this present-moment awareness. They are the basis of yoga and several other Eastern religions and spiritual practices. Grounding is a technique that helps to bring you out of the sea of thoughts and into the present moment reality. These are especially helpful in moments of stressful emotions and feelings. There are several skills you can try and regardless of your diagnostic label, each one has a different level of effectiveness so it’s important to try several before finding your present-moment solution. The great thing about grounding techniques is that they’re so easy they’re almost effortless, yet they work wonderfully by acting as a net to fish you out of the turbulence of thoughts that sweep you from the present.

Meditation, a regular practice of yoga, can be also be practiced independently as part of your mental health routine. It is the practice of focusing your attention on a single point of reference, oftentimes the breath. Some like to focus on a mantra or intention. Ultimately, it is a way to pull your mind out of the stream of thought and observe rather than follow for a set amount of time. This sort of focused mental training helps rewire the brain patterns of entangled thoughts that pull you from the present moment. By training yourself to observe, the mind begins to silence itself from these thoughts and you become present. Once the session is over, your ability to remain focused on the present in real-life becomes easier, and you begin to experience life on the paradigm of the now, as life should be lived. Meditation is a helpful tool for mental health because it not only reduces stress by hushing the mental noise, but such effectiveness has shown it to work against the progression of illnesses like depression and anxiety. Regular meditation practice can actually change your brain’s stress response to promote you’re the effectiveness of your Mental Health Toolbox.

So….what’s next?

Now that you’ve been educated and empowered with your very own set of tools, you can take charge in your mental health journey by applying your own personal strategy to evolving into the best version of you. Remember, we’re all under construction and need to constantly add new tools to our arsenal. I’d love to hear from you on how you’ve adapted this basic concept and made it your own! Subscribe and like my blog to stay up-to-date on future additions to the Mental Health Toolbox.

~Empower! Educate! Evolve!

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