Happy New Year! I think we can all agree that 2020 was a challenging year for many of us. We lived (and continue to live) through a health pandemic, civil unrest and a major presidential election. If you experienced increased stress, anxiety and mental strain during this previous year, you are not alone.
January is Mental Wellness Month, a perfect time to check in with ourselves and our loved ones to see how we are holding up emotionally and mentally. When we think of New Year’s resolutions, there is often an emphasis put on physical wellness: trying a new diet, exercising more, etc. Our mental wellness is just as important and should be a priority in our lives. In this post, we will explore what mental wellness is, and the practical ways to improve our mental wellness throughout the year.
What Is Mental Wellness?
Like physical health, our mental health is affected by many external and internal factors in our lives. How we treat ourselves can directly affect whether our mental health is positive or not. Mental wellness is the ability to cope with life’s stressors while maintaining a good quality of life. It’s about building up the tools we need to find resilience when life feels depleting. Even if you are diagnosed with a chronic mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, there are ways to help you maintain mental wellness, also known as emotional wellness and mental health, through life’s struggles.
1. Practice Mindfulness
“Mindfulness” is a word that has received a lot of attention over the past few years as more individuals explore practices of meditation and yoga. But what does mindfulness actually entail and how can it help with our mental wellness? I love this definition of mindfulness provided by Mindful.org: “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” Practicing mindfulness is about being aware and accepting at the same time. In Western society, we often pride ourselves on staying busy and thinking ahead. Mindfulness challenges us to show up fully in every area of our lives. It is the embodiment of living in the moment.
Mindfulness as a Way of Life
Though meditation is one of the more popular forms of mindfulness, being mindful can be incorporated into many daily activities. Let’s take eating, for example. If you are anything like me, my schedule is often full and I find myself rushing to grab a bite before I’m on to my next task. My meal periods are often filled with me thinking about something that happened earlier in the day or what I need to do after I’m done eating. Eating mindfully may look like taking time to focus on what I’m eating. What textures does my tongue feel? What tastes am I experiencing? As I nourish my body, what feelings am I experiencing?
Many of us are very good at practicing mindfulness with others. We know how to be mindful of our loved ones’ feelings and thoughts. It’s quite normal for us to ask, “How are you feeling?” or to say, “I’m just checking in on you.” Remember that checking in with ourselves is important, too.
I’ve often heard people shy away from meditation, saying things like, “I can’t clear my mind” or “I can’t just stop thinking.” On the contrary, meditation is about slowing down, being in the moment, allowing thoughts to come freely and then releasing those thoughts. If you are new to meditation, try starting with a few minutes (two minutes is fine). Sit or lay in a comfortable position. Close your eyes or soften your gaze. Take a deep breath in. Notice how the breath feels as it fills your nostrils, chest and stomach. Hold the breath for a few seconds before exhaling. Do this for a few cycles. Try to keep your mind focused on your breath. If a thought pops in your mind, acknowledge it and bring your attention back to your breath. At first it may seem difficult to stay focused on your breath, but the more you do it, the more natural it will become.
2. Practice Rest
We are complex beings and our physical health affects our mental health and vice versa. Our bodies need proper rest to function to the best of our ability. Try creating a set bedtime that allows you to rest for at least eight hours at night. Try not to sleep with electronics, like your telephone or laptop, nearby. Sleep can allow our minds to rest and our nervous system to relax, improving our mental state when we awake.
Resting can also be done through mindfulness practices. Taking a moment to breathe throughout your day can help reset your mind and body for the tasks ahead. Give yourself little breaks throughout your day to help facilitate rest, not only as a sleeping pattern, but as a way of life.
3. Practice Gratitude
Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean that you ignore the challenges you have in your life. Instead, it focuses on the positive people and things we have in our lives. Showing gratitude for the small things can help you feel better about yourself, your situation and the people around you. In the morning I like to give thanks for my life (no matter how disheveled it may feel in the moment), my family and having my basic needs met. It only takes a few seconds for me to think thoughts of gratitude, but this small action helps me put my mental health into perspective and gives me a little hope to press on.
Expressing gratitude to others can also help our mental wellness while simultaneously helping others. Letting a coworker know that you appreciate their help on a project or thanking your partner for their love and commitment helps acknowledge the support we have in others.
4. Practice Asking for Help
One of the mottos that I saw a lot during 2020 was “we’re better together.” This is true, especially when it comes to mental wellness. Humans are social beings. We thrive on connection and belonging. It’s OK to seek help from others if you feel that your mental health is suffering. I have two sisters and we all live far away from each other. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we began having video chats more often. We were able to acknowledge that social distancing was taking a toll on our mental health and that we needed each other. Whether our conversations were light-hearted or more serious, it was nice to look at faces and hear familiar voices. Reaching out to a loved one can help brighten our mood and help us process struggles.
If you feel you need additional help, seek guidance from a professional counselor or therapist. I’ve referenced physical wellness a few times in this article because it’s very common for us to seek medical professionals when we have physical ailments. Likewise, there are mental health professionals who can help you recover when you feel you are not at your best. Discovery Mood & Anxiety Programs offers individual counseling as well as support groups for individuals who need extra support. Therapists are like mental trainers, if you will, who can assist by giving you the coping skills that you need to get back in shape, mentally and emotionally. Remember that you are not alone, and together with the help of family, friends and mental health professionals, you can take steps to have better mental wellness in this upcoming year.
April Cox is a permanency specialist II at Professional Family Care Services in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about the mental health of individuals and families and prides her work on providing practical ways to promote mental health wellness. April has a BA in sociology and has worked as a therapeutic staff support, family-based counselor, and drug and alcohol counselor before transitioning to child welfare, where she helps foster children and foster families process past traumas. April is passionate about the arts and spends her evenings teaching dance classes to all ages.