I have always believed that happiness is a choice. Bad things happen to everyone and life sucks sometimes, it is up to each of us to choose to find happiness despite what life hands us. Lately I have been wondering, where is the line between choosing to find the good in life and pretending to be happy when you aren’t… 2016 (and 2015 and 2014 and 2013…) has been a very challenging year, and 2017 hasn’t started any better. I have lost count of how many people have commented on how strong and positive I am despite the circumstances in my life. On the outside I present a positive, bubbly, happy persona. On the inside I’m drowning in fear and solitude, chocking on stress and despair. I tell myself that the smile on my face is how I choose happiness but the smile is not for me, it’s an act for others.
Let’s be honest. When a co-worker or acquaintance greets you with “How are you?” most of the time they don’t really want to know. It’s not a sincere inquiry into your well being, it’s a hello. A truthful response makes people uncomfortable. The response they want from you (if they even wait around to hear a response) is “I’m good, how are you?”. It’s easier to smile and provide the socially acceptable reply but is it healthy? What effect does the detached, self-absorbed society we live in have on our mental health?
Uh oh, hear we go with another rant about the mental health crisis in America… Hold on, before you click off to a riveting buzzfeed video about different types of spanx, let me explain. I’m not talking about schizophrenia or clinical depression. I want to discuss the everyday mental health of your average Joe (or Josie). The idea of “Mental Health” comes with a stigma of crazy people screaming on street corners or the need for padded rooms and straight jackets. In reality we all need to be aware of our own metal health. Stress is a fact of life, no one is immune and some stress is healthy. On the other hand chronic stress is not only damaging, it’s dangerous. Denying to yourself that you are overwhelmed by stress or the need to appear strong and self-sufficient to others can put you at risk for illnesses, diseases, depression, and damage to your brain. When you have a cold, no one judges you for taking cold medicine and resting. Doctors urge everyone to eat right and exercise; to put effort into protecting a healthy body. No one expects physical health to be a natural given, requiring no effort or thought. We all understand the steps required to keep our bodies healthy and we all make our own choices about taking (or not taking) those steps. Mental health is the same but not viewed this way in our society. It is subconsciously accepted and an incredibly unrealistic belief that if you aren’t happy and stress free with no effort, there must be something “wrong” with you. It only makes since that mental health requires equal attention and effort as physical health to maintain.
We all need to be aware of our own true mental state and be prepared with coping mechanisms to better handle what life throws at us. Whether that be a challenging job, an unhappy family life, loss, illness or a life altering trauma. We will all be faced with more than we can handle. Will you be ready? I still struggle personally with my mental well being but I’m taking steps to improve my coping skills and live a happier life. If the suggestions here can help enlighten even one person, I will have exceeded my goal.
- Self Awareness – The first and most difficult step on the road to everyday mental health is self awareness. You can’t improve if you aren’t honest and open with yourself. Becoming self aware is incredibly difficult and can take years to truly accomplish. Each person will find themselves in different ways but here are some basic first steps.
- Evaluation – Most of us have had to do an annual evaluation at work. Think of this step as that on a deeper level. Make a list of accomplishments, failures, positive personality traits, negative personality traits, strengths, weaknesses, desires, fears, goals, what you enjoy, what you dislike, etc. Gain feedback from people close to you if you feel comfortable doing so (or better yet step out of your comfort zone). explain your need for brutal honesty and add some trusted outside perspective to your list.
- Analysis – look over your list. Analyze why you are who you are. Why you do what you do. Don’t make excuses or criticize yourself, just look at the facts objectively. Find patterns and behaviors you didn’t realize were a part of you.
- Meditation – ok, ok I can see the eye roll from here… Meditation is not a one size fits all practice. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sitting cross legged on the floor clearing your mind of all thoughts. Just sit quietly for a couple minutes to start out. Don’t try to think of nothing, try counting your breaths or evaluating how each part of your body feels in that moment. As you gain practice and meditate longer and deeper start detaching yourself of your thought. Simply let your mind go as it will and observe where it leads you. You can learn a lot about yourself by simply observing your minds natural tendencies.
- Acceptance – Don’t judge yourself. Accept who you are, good, bad and indifferent. Create realistic goals for self improvement but don’t dwell on your “flaws”. Self awareness is not so you can change who you are, it’s so you can accept who you are and be honest with yourself in all things.
- Take Control of Your Own Life – I categorize stress in two ways. Stress that happens to you and stress you create. Both are under your control. Stress that you create, you can change. Stress that happens to you can be dealt with and processed. For example, let’s say you have a decent job but never seem to have enough money. Living paycheck to paycheck is stress you create. Evaluate your spending habits, create a budget and eliminate the costs in your life that you don’t need. Stress that happens to you is not something we can avoid, but we can decide how to handle it. For example, imagine someone you love gets sick or dies. This isn’t something you can change but the choice to deal with it in a healthy way or not is yours. Don’t let stress control you. Evaluate the stresses in your life and take the control back!
- Find a Healthy Outlet – While acknowledging the stresses in life is important, dwelling on life problems can do just as much damage as avoiding them. If you find yourself overwhelmed, take a break. Do something you enjoy that relaxes you. It can be painting, gardening, kickboxing, cooking, cleaning, etc. Stay away from false relaxations like alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. these provide only a false suspension of reality that only steers you to avoidance of the issue. A healthy outlet is not a solution, it’s a break from the analysis of the problem. Don’t turn your outlet into your crutch.
- Talk to Someone – Don’t try to cope alone. Talk to a friend, a family member or a professional. Talk to someone who will listen and support you. Maybe they will offer advice and maybe they won’t. Don’t place expectations on them in regards to the response you want or fixing your problem. Simply talk to someone and let it be enough to say the words out loud. Don’t keep it bottled up. We are only human and we can’t do it alone.
- Take an Interest in Others – Sometimes perspective is all we really need. Volunteer with a charity for those less fortunate than you. Take a sincere interest in your friends and co-workers lives. Be the shoulder to lean on for someone else in need. I strongly believe that troubles in others lives in no way minimize the troubles in your own life or vice versa, we all have our burden to bare. But often times helping to lighten the load of someone else’s burden can add much needed perspective to our own lives.