Caring for Your Mental Health

Article Written By: Judy Rooney, LCSW, Certified Mindset & Habit Coach, Behavioral Health, TriState Clearwater Medical

Let’s face it, our mental health has been challenged over these past three years. Maybe you’ve noticed a shift in your mood, a change in your energy, sleep patterns, desire to socialize, or even a lack of concentration. When we feel mentally off balance, our overall health is compromised, and we can be at a loss as to what to do to help ourselves.

As humans, we all have mental health, which requires the same attention and care as other aspects of our lives. Not something you can just ‘snap out of,’ our mental health can be complex with a range of positivity and negativity. Mental health involves our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It impacts how we think, feel (physically and emotionally), and act, as we cope with life.

Psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center and a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, speaks around the country on mental health and emotional wellness. She has developed a simple guide to foster a mental health practice when we feel off, or in times of high stress, the “4 M’s of mental health:” movement, mindfulness, mastery, and meaningful engagement.

Movement. The connection between your brain and body is a “two-way street.” Movement supports the production and release of endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which are known as the “happy hormones” that bolster positive feelings and mood. Whatever the physical exercise – walking, cycling, swimming, yoga, gardening, playing with kids, even cleaning your house – it can be effective in improving your mood by stimulating those beneficial hormones. Sometimes we don’t feel like doing any activity; however, once we engage in some form of movement, we feel better. I especially like to encourage being outdoors to benefit from natural sunlight (vitamin D) and fresh air, which supports relaxation, calmness, and lowers blood pressure. Exercise is rejuvenating both mentally and physically, and is a great stress reliever.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation where you focus on being aware, accepting of what you are feeling, and sensing the present moment without judgment or interpretation. Observe the thoughts and emotions that are surfacing and resist the urge to engage with experiences of the past or worries of the future. You can do this exercise during everyday activities like washing the dishes, or taking the dog for a walk. Perhaps you can carve out a few minutes in your morning or afternoon to be still. Taking deep breaths while engaging in this practice can ease anxiety while providing relaxation and focus. Mindfulness can be done in a few minutes, but work towards ten to fifteen minutes to really experience the benefit of quieting the mind and lowering your stress level.

Mastery. Try something new, such as a hobby, or engage in a project that sparks interest and a sense of personal satisfaction. Mastery refers to having great skill at something which can expand our creativity, provide an opportunity for growth, and build our sense of self. Focusing our thoughts and building our concentration can help take us out of that negative thinking pattern. The possibilities are endless; try cooking, gardening, learning to play a musical instrument, a new language, photography, dance, karate, golf, refinishing furniture, or creative writing.

Meaningful Engagement. As human beings, we are meant to be in connection with others. This has become more evident with the isolation many of us felt throughout the pandemic. Take time to be with those that provide helpful, meaningful connections. Reach out for yourself and others who may need to have the contact. Look for opportunities to volunteer, perform random acts of kindness, or share a laugh! You are part of a wider community, whether it be friends, family, co-workers, or an online network – we are all in this together and benefit from the intentional outreach. Make each interaction count, and sometimes that can be as simple as a kind word or a smile.

Think about how good you will feel when you participate in an activity that includes movement, meaningful engagement, mastery, and mindfulness! This approach can be combined with other forms of self-care, like healthy eating, getting good sleep, and limiting your use of alcohol to promote your well-being. Be intentional with caring for your mental health, making it a daily practice. In times of high stress, putting these 4 M’s into action can help avoid further decline in psychosocial functioning. As we continue to take care of our mental health, it can also reduce the risks to our physical health. There is no health without mental health!