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Everyone seems to be talking about mental health these days, and it’s about damn time.
As a psychotherapist and someone who has battled mental health issues my whole life, I’ve watched the shift from mental illness being considered a dirty little secret to something we might bring up around the dinner table.
Assuming your dinner table is a chattier place than mine. But I digress.
This is not to say the stigma is gone—it’s not. My hesitation about tossing my own brain health into the mix of this very article is proof in the pudding.
Despite my worry about being judged, and my hesitation before I discuss the state of my mental health, I also always opt for transparency. Why? It seems obvious that if I can’t talk the talk no one will listen, and talking and listening is exactly what I am trying to encourage for us all.
So, anxiety, depression, trauma—my longtime companions. They are worms in my broken brain, and while I never seem to be able to kill them off, I do dial down their voices (sometimes) to a murmur with the help of drugs, therapy, exercise, healthy food, strong relationships, a meaningful job, and a dog. If you think that sounds like a lot, you’re right. Staying mentally healthy for anyone is a tall order, and it’s even taller if your synapses are uncooperative.
As you might imagine, the nature of my job means that the majority of people I interact with are not mentally healthy, but they are mentally ill to varying degrees and for various reasons. Realizing that mental health occurs on a spectrum is important, because it guides us in our approach toward treating it. The more compromised one’s brain is, the more intensive treatment should be, and the more adjuncts to treatment (diet, exercise, meditation, etc.) we should consider.
But how do we know how mentally healthy or how mentally unhealthy we might be? Even a therapist is unlikely to tell us this, as the telling of it shapes our therapy in potentially limiting and counterproductive ways. But discovering it for ourselves might be the thing that spurs us to action.
I have found that one simple question can help get us to the heart of the matter. Here it is:
Do my habitual thoughts, feelings, or behaviors impact my life in a way that creates distress or sabotages me in any of the following areas: relationships, physical health, financial health, education, or achievement of personal goals?
I love this question because it so quickly clarifies what is or isn’t happening in our lives, assuming we are willing to be honest with ourselves.
Let’s break it down a little.
1. Habitual thoughts: negative beliefs we hold about the world or ourselves that routinely cause us to make poor decisions, not live up to our potential, or keep us in pain.
Examples: I am unlovable. I am stupid. I am not good enough. If I don’t drink, people will think I’m boring. If I don’t do drugs, I won’t be able to manage my emotions. If I stand up for myself, everyone will abandon me. I am weak. I am ugly. I have nothing to contribute. I have no purpose. Life is meaningless.
As there are degrees of mental illness, so there are degrees of holding negative beliefs—we all harbor some about something; we all have ghosts and demons. But what we’re trying to figure out is how loud those ghosts and demons are, and how readily we listen to them. If your life is not where you want it to be, I’m betting you’re listening very carefully. Try to pin down what the loudest voice is saying.
2. Habitual feelings: feelings that are so powerful we seem to be at their mercy. This includes the sense that we have no feelings at all, or are “dead” or numb inside.
>> Anxiety that is so pervasive it prohibits us from, or creates distress around, doing daily tasks such as speaking to others, going to the store, advocating for ourselves, making phone calls, taking tests, applying for jobs, asking for fair payment, getting proper sleep, insisting we be treated with respect.
>> Depression that is so pervasive it stops us from getting out of bed, moving our bodies, connecting with others, making plans for the future, having hope.
The difference between thoughts and feelings, at least for our purposes here, is that thoughts are beliefs that can be represented in words and concepts, and feelings are what’s happening on a deeper, more primal level. The two impact one another of course; if I feel hopeless, I may come to believe that I have to do drugs to manage my emotions and vice versa, but again, finding the loudest of these voices helps us zero in on what ground to start excavating first.
3. Habitual behaviors: behaviors that are self-destructive or counterproductive, including the refusal to act.
Examples: binge eating, calorie restriction, addiction to exercise, excessive drug or alcohol use, refusal to find employment, inability to maintain employment, choosing abusive or cruel partners, remaining in abusive relationships, staying in bed for unreasonable lengths of time.
As with thoughts and feelings, behaviors do not take place in a void—all three are irrevocably tied to one another. But where we may see no problem with our feelings, we may be able to see it in our behaviors or our thoughts, so it is helpful to consider this from all three angles.
So, let’s say we really sat down and took a minute to examine this question: do my habitual thoughts, feelings, or behaviors impact my life in a way that creates distress, or sabotages me in any of the following areas: relationships, physical health, financial health, education, or achievement of personal goals?
And let’s say we are breathtakingly honest with ourselves. And let’s say we see, we finally see (or admit), yes, there is a worm. I see it now! I want it gone.
What do we do?
The good news is, you are already doing it. The fact that you are reading these words and allowing them to take root is as loud a statement as any that you want to feel and be better.
Next, reach out to a trusted friend and tell them what you are thinking. Consider therapy. Take yourself on a long walk somewhere quiet. Wonder, what do I want my life to look like, and what is stopping me from having that life? You’re right there. You’re ready to start healing.
And if you do something every day, something habitually positive to encourage that journey, there’s no telling what might happen.