May is mental health awareness month, so I want to start with thinking about what mental health is and what it means to be aware. These questions may seem overly basic, but I am often concerned that we are not thoughtful about framing mental health in truly helpful ways (not just ways that feel good for a short-term solution).
Want a fun place to start the conversation?! How about we talk about suffering!? Okay, suffering may not be the most fun place to start, but it is an important one. We all suffer. Suffering is a part of the human experience. We do not all necessarily suffer well, however. There is a way to suffer well and there is a way to suffer poorly, but we all suffer. To deny suffering or to try to hope it away will be a futile effort. Therefore, when we explore mental health, we must start with the understanding the goal of mental health is not to get rid of all problems. Mental health, in my eyes, is instead understanding that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all matter and are all in need of care. In order for our mental life to be healthy, it will require us to pay some attention to it. My knee had a lot of pain last year, and the solution to the pain was not to ignore it and go on with life. No, I needed to pay some attention to it and care for it.
Finally, let’s go a step further by exploring awareness. Of course, we know the month was meant to make us think more about mental health and bring to light important issues. But let’s also consider what it means to be aware of our thought life and our awareness of our own mental health. The goal of personal mental health awareness is not hyperfocus on thoughts or feelings. Instead, the purpose of awareness is to pay attention to the purpose of a greater goal. For example, I paid attention to my knee and went to physical therapy, with the goal of more easily playing with my kids and going for runs in my free time. For many people, it can be intimidating to think about their mental health because they are afraid people are going to try to convince them to focus for too long on their thoughts and feelings. Instead, the goal of focusing on mental health is to help people live - to live rich, meaningful lives.
One of my favorite simple activities for improving my mental health is purposely working backward from my values. You can quickly change your behaviors by focusing and re-aligning them based on values. For example, today I came home from work, and like most days, my mind was thinking about many, many things. I was thinking about work, what I needed to do around the house, people I am nervous to talk to because of the conflict it involves, and so much more. At some point, I noticed my racing thoughts and tried this basic three-step process.
Step 1: Breathe. Before trying to jump into more thinking and just getting sucked back into a worry cycle, I tried to break it by not thinking and instead breathing and focusing my attention away from my thoughts and onto my breath. Sometimes focusing on my breath feels difficult for me, in which case I’ll focus on a sense - something I see, something I feel, something I hear, etc.
Step 2: Ask myself, what do I value most in these moments right in front of me? In this case, I had one hour to be around my kids before they went to bed. Plenty of other things seemed important, but family and play were the most important values for the next hour.
Step 3: Identify a behavior that aligns with your values. In this situation, it was quite easy, and I decided to go play with my kids.
Aligning with values is something we can do constantly throughout the day. While playing with my kids, I found myself starting to check my phone, thinking about a problem I needed to solve with a friend, etc. I called out those thoughts (“I’m having a thought about my house project”), allowed the thoughts to come and go out of my head, and re-focused back on play. It took probably 30+ times of labeling thoughts and letting them go (which only takes 2 seconds), and it allowed me to be even more present and enjoy the moment. I had to remind myself of my value, look and observe my child closely, and allow myself to get sucked more into the physical realities in front of me than the mental world inside of me. Slowly, the two were able to align.
-Dr. Andrew Cuthbert, PsyD