Mental and emotional health is an important, essential part of our overall health and wellbeing. Most of us take part in some activities that help us stay physically fit – by going to the gym, taking a walk, swimming or playing a sport. Similarly, we could all do with including some activities that can also keep us mentally and emotionally healthy.
A common misconception is that the absence of a mental health disorder means that a person is mentally fit and emotionally well. Experts say that merely not having depression, anxiety or other disorders does not necessarily mean that a person is mentally or emotionally healthy.
Why invest in our emotional health?
Managing emotions and maintaining emotional balance is an important skill. Lack of emotion regulation skills can lead to poor wellbeing, difficulty in relationships, and mental health problems. Staying mentally and emotionally healthy helps us face challenges, stresses and setbacks. It also equips us to be more functional in our daily lives. A person who is mentally and emotionally healthy is able to connect with themselves and other people, and able to respond to the challenges that life throws in their path.
“We will have to face challenges, and we will have to deal with people and things that we don’t like. We try to control our situations, when the only thing we can control is our interpretation of things around us. The more we are able to adapt to challenges, the more mentally and emotionally healthy we can become,” says Maullika Sharma, a Bangalore-based counselor.
Taking care of your mental wellbeing
The idea of taking care of your mental wellbeing may sound vague, complicated or challenging. However, experts say that you can take care of your mental wellbeing by incorporating some simple activities into your daily routine, or making some minor changes in your lifestyle. Here are some ways in which you can begin:
1. Take care of your physical health
Physical health plays an important role in ensuring that you are mentally healthy. You can stay healthy by eating well, getting adequate rest and exercise, and actively taking care of your physical health. Eating fresh food that is rich in nutrients helps your body deal with daily stresses. Foods which have Vitamin B-12 and Omega 3 fatty acids keep up the levels of mood-regulating chemicals in the brain. Getting enough rest is also important; it is when we sleep that the body is able to heal its daily wear and tear. Lack of sleep can make you feel tired, stressed and cranky. Getting enough exercise also improves your appetite, and helps you get enough sleep – which is also vital to your mental wellbeing.
2. Exercise, and get some fresh air
Sunlight increases the production of serotonin – a chemical that regulates mood – in the brain. Daily exposure to sunlight helps avoid depression. Physical activity is also beneficial for the mind. Exercise boosts energy, reduces stress and mental fatigue. Find an activity that you enjoy, so that this process is exciting for you.
3. Take care of yourself
Self-care is an essential part of mental and emotional wellbeing. Expressing your emotions constructively makes it easier to cope with your stresses and conflicts. Set time aside for yourself; attend to your own emotional needs, read a book, pamper yourself, or just relax and unwind without having to worry about your daily tasks.
Put away your gadgets and pay attention to what’s happening around you, to be more mindful. “Mindfulness simply means being in the present without thinking of the past or future; choosing what you respond to, rather than getting carried away with everything that appears in your mind or your experience; to focus on one thing at a time, be non-judgmental and cultivate an attitude of impermanence towards things and situations. This helps you stay open to experiences and helps you not get overly affected by them,” says Dr M Manjula, additional professor of clinical psychology, NIMHANS.
4. Spend time with people whose company you enjoy
Spending time with people you love and get along with, gives you a sense of being valued and appreciated. Having healthy relationships with your friends, family, colleagues and neighbors can increase your sense of emotional wellbeing and give you an enriching feeling of connectedness. Have lunch with a colleague, or make plans to meet a friend you haven’t spent time with in a while. No technology can replace a smile or a hug.
5. Pursue a hobby, or a new activity
Participating in activities that you enjoy helps you stay engaged and happy. It keeps your mind occupied and can also give you an outlet to express your emotions, particularly those that you may find difficult to share with others. Hobbies can help you overcome stress and increase your self-esteem.
Trying new activities helps keep a fresh perspective, and keeps you on your toes as you learn to step out of your comfort zone. The process of learning helps you break thought patterns when you focus on the new skill. Picking up a new skill challenges you, increases your concentration levels, and makes you feel good about learning something new. It also increases your confidence in being able to face new situations, new challenges and new people.
6. Manage your stress
We all have some people or events that cause stress. Identify what this kind of stress is triggered by for you, and try to re-interpret and re-appraise those situations. You may try to stay away from such situations sometimes, but that may not always work or be feasible. Sometimes, the stress may be caused due to lack of strategies to handle certain situations or life events. This is why it is essential to learn the skills required to address your stress.
“If you know you get stressed by an exam, you must learn how to put exams in perspective and not let them become life-defining events for you, because your exams are something you will just have to face. In some cases, avoiding stress-generating situations may work, but you must be able to differentiate between when you can avoid them and when you cannot. So find your strategy to manage your stress so that you can take better care of yourself. This could include talking to a friend, believing in yourself, reappraising and reinterpreting your situation, meditating, going for a walk, listening to music, and exercising, just to name a few, says Maullika Sharma.
7. Accept yourself and believe in yourself
All of us are different, and we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. Identifying and owning your strengths and accepting your weaknesses gives you the courage to believe in yourself and the strength to move on. Everyone has weaknesses, and so do you; no one is perfect. You can choose to change the weaknesses about yourself that you don’t like or you can choose to accept those weaknesses about yourself that you can live with. But accepting that you have some weaknesses just like everyone else, and it is okay that you are less than perfect, is a key ingredient of your mental and emotional wellbeing. Set realistic goals. Try to assess your own limitations and draw boundaries accordingly. Learn to prioritise and say ‘no’ when you are overwhelmed. Know that you are okay and worth it.
8. Count your blessings
While this may sound like a cliché, it is true that when you are grateful for what you have, it can take away the focus from what you don’t. Studies show that being grateful for what you have helps you stay optimistic about your future and boosts your mental health. Maintain a gratitude journal. Every night before going to bed, write down what you are thankful for on that day. If you allow yourself to be thankful, and remember your blessings, you will realize that not a single day will go by without you having something to be thankful for, no matter what your specific situation.
9. Express yourself
Very often, we shy away from expressing emotions or feelings that we think are ‘negative.’ Being able to express what we’re feeling, or what we like or don’t like, can help us de-clutter our minds. Suppressing emotions is a coping strategy for many of us, yet it can be harmful. Research suggests that suppressing emotions can actually make emotions stronger. This may cause greater stress. The emotion may then be displaced onto something trivial or unrelated.
Emotion suppression is also believed to lead to depression or anxiety disorders. Even anger and sadness are emotions that are worthy of expression. The only thing we need to know is how to express it in a way that does not create havoc on us, our relationships and our environment. “No emotion, by itself, is either good or bad. Every emotion is important and essential. What makes it healthy or unhealthy is the intensity of the experience, and how it was expressed (too much or too less), the appropriateness of the expression, and the frequency of the emotion occurring,” says Dr Manjula.
10. Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed
There is no one on earth who has the perfect life that’s free of stress, anxiety or low moods. When you feel sad, challenged, frustrated, confused, angry, or just simply overwhelmed and unable to cope, speak to someone you trust – a spouse, friend, parent, sibling or relative. If you think you need even more support, reach out to a physician or counselor. The earlier you reach out, the better. Remember that there is no shame in asking for help - it is a sign of great strength, not of weakness, as it is often made out to be. You don’t need to face the challenges of life alone. Resilient people make use of the support systems that are available to help them care for themselves.