For more than 25 years I thought I was crazy. I would remind myself, “Some people are born to be crazy, and you’re one of them.” Only I hadn’t been born crazy; I’d survived a trauma at the age of 13 and afterward found myself behaving in ways that seemed crazy. Not knowing a thing about mental health, my parents and I followed the advice of several therapeutic professionals who labeled my behavior as normal teenage angst, rebellion, and individuation—even as it extended well into my 30s.
Finally, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a clinically recognized mental illness. My “crazy” behavior was symptomatic of emotional distress. So began my education about mental health and treatment options for healing. Today, I’m free of PTSD symptoms and mentally healthy, living a vibrant, joyful life. If I’d known more about mental health earlier, I might not have lost so much time in the crazy maze.
All of this makes May (Mental Health Awareness month) very special to me. The more we know about mental health, the more likely we are to achieve, maintain, and sustain it.
What Is Mental Health?
When we refer to “mental health,” it’s easy to place the focus on psychology and emotions. But there’s a third component: We’re social beings hard-wired to connect. True mental health includes social well-being. Considering your own overall state of mental health must include elements from all three categories. Questions to ask as you assess your mental health status include:
- Am I realizing my full potential?
- Do I healthily manage and respond to stress?
- Am I engaged in productive work?
- Do I make meaningful contributions to my community?
Feelings of “less than,” victimization, lack of purpose, and an absence of community connection can cue you in to being out of alignment with your best and most healthy self. Other clues of subpar stability include:
- eating too little or too much
- feeling numb
- unexplained aches and pains
- feeling on edge and angry
- yelling, raging, and fighting
- battling persistent disturbing thoughts and memories
If your answers to the questions above tend toward the negative, or you recognize yourself in any of these symptoms, take heart: You can start to create change and increase your mental health right this minute.
Daily Practices to Increase Mental Health
Experiencing emotional, psychological, and social stability affects how you handle stress and relate to others and how you make choices and take actions that create a life that feels good to you. Factors contributing to poor mental health include biology, life experiences, and family history. Ironically, these are all elements that can contribute to good mental health, too. While reduced mental health can be created by factors outside your control, rebuilding a sense of mental health can begin with actions explicitly within your control. Make a habit of any (or all) of these daily practices to increase your mental health:
- Develop yourself. Reaching your potential means fully developing into who you feel you can be. Assess your life today. Notice the areas in which you feel you could be more effective and connected. Make a plan for how to focus on expanding yourself daily.
- Buff up your stress response. The more flexible (versus rigid) you are, the more easily you’ll manage stress. Engaging in daily practices like breathwork, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness train your brain to focus while training your body to relax—a powerful combination for flexibility in even the most stressful situations.
- Choose work you’re good at. The better you feel about what you do, the better mental health you’ll experience. Even in a job you don’t love, find a way every day to notice and mindfully engage in the (tiniest) aspects of your work in which you feel pride and excel.
- Make a difference. Humans derive much of their mental state from interactions with others. Making a difference in the lives of others creates a nice serotonin boost in your brain while also forming meaningful connections with your tribe, which allows you to feel like you matter—a “more than” feeling for sure.
Technically, the brain needs 30 consecutive days of any new practice to turn it into an unconscious habit. Creating improved mental health happens gradually. Right now, give yourself permission to succeed over time—and to give yourself the time you need to succeed.
My own quest for mental health took several months as I sought the practices and practitioners with whom I most resonated and felt able to achieve my desired mental health outcomes. During that time, one of the most important lessons I learned is that it’s okay to be imperfect as you move toward increased mental health. In fact, being mentally healthy means knowing it’s okay to be imperfect even as you continually strive to create a new and improved version of who you are.