The Optimist View: Celebrating Mental Health Week

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” — Christopher Robin from Winnie the Pooh

In the wake of a pandemic which saw increased rates of depression and anxiety, this year’s Mental Health Month feels more critical than ever. Although we believe in sharing year-round mental health solutions, we’ve put specific emphasis on the topic this past week with strategies for personal advocacy, breakthroughs in mental health treatment, and interviews with experts. 

One in five US adults live with mental illness, and although discussions around mental health are becoming more prevalent in our personal and professional lives, it is still a topic that carries a stigma. Fortunately, mental health advocates are helping to bridge the gap between those experiencing mental illness and those who are hesitant to talk about it.

One of those advocates who we highlighted this week is Nedra Glover Tawwab. Her Instagram page is full of mental health resources and affirmations that acknowledge the severity of mental health issues while providing books, quotes, and exercises to promote mental wellness. 

Tawwab, who describes herself as a “boundaries expert, content creator, and author,” offers book recommendations, like What Happened to You by Oprah Winfrey as well as helpful reminders like “9 Ways to Practice Nonjudgement.” She even shares inspirational mantras to guide your day like, “You can be grateful for what you have and still wish things were different or want more. Two things can be true.”

Personal Practices 

It’s normal to have good and bad days and months when it comes to mental health, but developing tools you can employ when you’re feeling down will help you combat these negative emotions and boost your mental health. 

One of the simplest strategies you can employ in any stressful situation is parasympathetic breathing. This technique uses long exhales to calm your parasympathetic nervous system and lower physiological signs of stress like heart rate and blood pressure. 

To practice parasympathetic breathing, follow these easy steps:

  1. Sit still and tall somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and begin breathing through your nose.
  2. Inhale for a count of 2. Pause at the top of your inhale for a count of 1.
  3. Exhale gently, for a count of 4. Pause at the bottom of your exhale for a count of 1.
  4. Keep your breathing even and smooth. If the 2-4 count feels too short, try increasing the breath lengths to 4 in and 6 out, 6 in and 8 out, and so on. (If longer breaths create any anxiety, don’t push yourself. The most important thing is that the exhale is longer than the inhale.)
  5. Set a timer and breathe this way for at least 5 minutes to see a difference in your mood.

Gratitude is another effective tool in improving mental wellness. Research has demonstrated over and over again that gratitude is a powerful force for reducing stress, boosting mental health, and increasing happiness. Essentially, recognizing all the good in our lives helps us focus on appreciation, rather than criticism. If you want to incorporate more gratitude into your life, check out this simple practice you can make part of your everyday routine for a heightened sense of thankfulness. 

Struggling with consistency in your mental health practice? Welcoming your family into your daily mental health routine can help you stick to it. Practicing mindfulness with your children will help both you and them and make your home a more wellness-focused space. 

Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and time outdoors are all great for mental health, but it’s also important to remember to make time for fun in your life. Sometimes all it takes to turn a day around is a good laugh with friends. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that the people we engage with everyday are a big part of our mood. In fact, research has shown that having fun can strengthen your relationships, benefit our cognitive function, and help you exhibit fewer negative feelings when stressful situations arise. 

Striking a balance

One of the biggest stress factors people cite in their lives is their jobs. Even if we love what we do, deadlines, big projects, and long hours can take a toll on our mental health. Striking a better balance between work and play will alleviate some of these anxieties and ensure that your time away from work is relaxing and rejuvenating. Although there is value in sharing your personal experiences and goals with your coworkers, this line between work time and free time has become increasingly blurred with at-home work. 

Engaging in fun outside of professional activities with your coworkers, developing an end-of-day routine, and finding a healthy distraction when your mind is overly focused on work can all help ensure work doesn’t occupy your every waking moment. 

If your work life balance strategies aren’t helping and you’re feeling burnt out, it may be time for a mental health day. Just like sick days, mental health days allow us to take time to reflect, recharge, and rest. Weekends are meant for rest, but with busy social calendars, these days can all too often feel stressful too. 

If you are fortunate enough to have an employer who values wellness, then asking for a mental health day may be quite easy. For those whose work culture does not prioritize mental and emotional health, then requesting a mental health day may be perceived negatively. In that case, it can be worth it to just take a regular sick day or use a vacation day. Make the most of your mental health day by getting plenty of sleep, eating well, and engaging in activities that feel rewarding and fun to you. This might be taking a hike, reading a good book, or enjoying a leisurely lunch with an old friend.

Seeking help 

Developing a daily mental health routine can keep negative thoughts and emotions in check, but if health and wellness practices aren’t providing the mental health relief you need, it may be time to look into professional resources. Although some people may be reluctant to go to therapy, online resources, which have expanded considerably during the pandemic, are making it easier for people to discreetly and comfortably get help. 

Kati Morton

This week, we reached out to Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist whose YouTube channel was one of the first to address mental health in the online sphere.  Kati joined us on The Optimist Daily Update to talk about how online spaces can be a resource for those struggling with their mental health. Her videos offer advice and compassion for people facing a myriad of challenges and we chatted with her about how mental health experiences and discussions have shifted during the pandemic and how we can protect our mental wellbeing as we move forward and back into socialization. 

Speaking of moving back into socialization, this process isn’t necessarily easy for everyone. Social anxiety and lingering pandemic fears might have you avoiding gatherings, even if you’re fully vaccinated. The world is always changing, but practicing self-compassion and respecting your own boundaries can help you cope during this period of transition. If you’re struggling with the idea of birthday parties and travel, this guide can help you ease back into socialization. Starting small with a picnic with friends or a book club is a great way to flex your social muscles without overstretching your boundaries. 

Research & Innovation

Mental health struggles are on the rise, yet the global median of government health expenditure that goes to mental health is less than two percent. Fortunately, we are beginning to see this trend shift as governments and private researchers acknowledge the severity of mental health struggles. 

Psychedelics are one class of drugs that holds immense potential for mental health treatment. Research on psychedelics largely stopped in the 1970s when they were outlawed in the US, but breakthrough research and from academics like Rock Doblin and reporting by science writers like Michael Pollen have brought these therapies back into the spotlight. 

Rick Doblin has been investigating the benefits of psychedelics for 40 years and now heads the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a research and advocacy organization that is pioneering the introduction of psychedelics as a mainstream aspect of mental health treatment. MAPS is working to loosen restrictions around the therapeutic use of these drugs so more research can be done on their application and efficacy. 

Some researchers have concerns about the link between psychedelics and psychosis in patients with existing mental health issues, but more and more projects are being introduced to evaluate the potential risks. MAPS has raised $44 million over the past two years to dive deeper into alternative medicine research and Johns Hopkins, Yale, the University of California, Berkeley, and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York have all launched psychedelic research divisions with funding from private donors. 

The potential applications for psychedelic therapies stretch beyond depression and PTSD. Studies are also finding efficacy in using these therapies to treat opioid addiction, anorexia, and the anxieties experienced by the terminally ill. Recent legalizations of the therapeutic use of psilocybin in Oregon and Canada as well as cities like Oakland and Denver are also making it easier to explore research opportunities. Researchers are even working on therapies derived from psilocybin which could offer mental health relief without hallucinations. 

Psychology researcher Elyn R. Saks said, “The humanity we all share is more important than the mental illnesses we may not.” Despite being so common, mental health struggles are still heavily stigmatized. Discussing these issues and finding common ground in mental health solutions is the only way we can move forward into a future in which mental health treatment is available and accessible for all.

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