Staying Well: Exercises for Mental Wellness
Most of us know some basic things about staying physically well. We know to wash our hands, wear seatbelts, drink enough water, exercise regularly, brush our teeth, and get a check-up periodically. And we (mostly) do all these things because we want to live long, healthy lives. But did you know there are some basic “exercises” you can do to stay mentally healthy? Here are a few ideas.
Be Your Own Best Friend
Exercise 1: Be your own best friend.
I’m regularly astonished at how cruel people can be to themselves. I frequently hear people call themselves stupid, ugly, disgusting, bad and a whole host of other unkind words. One thing I have learned and that I have taught to many people is to treat yourself the way you would treat your own best friend.
Here’s how to do the exercise. Think of a person you love dearly. This can be a family member or a close friend. Now imagine her in exactly the same situation you are in. Whatever you are unhappy about, whatever you are blaming yourself for, imagine she is experiencing exactly the same thing. Now, what would you tell her? Think about it for a minute. It’s probably something kind and reassuring, right? Here are some examples of things you might say to a beloved friend: Everyone makes mistakes. You’ll be able to work through this. You are talented in many ways. You are an awesome person and a good friend.
You would never tell your best friend that she was stupid, or ugly, or anything like that. You wouldn’t even think it. After all, this is your best friend! You care about her! Now, follow this rule:
If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, you can’t say it to yourself!
Instead, say to yourself all the supportive, kind and loving things you would say to your best friend. You will find that in addition to feeling better, you will actually be much more motivated to act in positive ways in whatever situation you are in.
Put it into practice
Which exercise are you willing to try?
Exercise 3: Practice relaxation regularly.
Many people seem to live in a paraphrase of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous statement: The thing I fear most is fear itself. They are distressed by the physical sensations of anxiety: their heart beating rapidly, their hands trembling, their stomachs feeling queasy, their chests feeling tight. They believe their anxiety will grow and grow until they completely lose control. They are worried other people will notice and laugh at them. Some people even worry that their anxiety will harm them physically. Unfortunately, this fear will only make the initial anxiety worse and intensify the physical sensations. It also leads to avoidance, which, as we already discussed, worsens anxiety.
Relaxation is a solid antidote to feelings of anxiety. Most relaxation techniques (deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga, tai chi) will activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system that is in charge of “rest and restore” and it counteracts the sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of “fight or flee”. When you are anxious the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, and it feels terrible. Practicing relaxation techniques on a regular basis will give you the tools to activate your parasympathetic nervous system when you need to. The key words here are “regular practice.” If you only attempt to use relaxation techniques when you are feeling very anxious you will not find them very helpful. Like building up strength in a muscle, relaxation practices build strength and effectiveness from repeated exercise.
Don't Avoid When You are Afraid
Exercise 2: Don’t avoid what you are afraid of.
A basic part of human psychology is that avoidance increases fear and anxiety. So, for example, if you are nervous about going to work for some reason and decide to stay home sick to avoid the situation, you will be even more nervous the next day when you have to go to work. If you keep following that pattern you will become more and more anxious and soon find yourself unable to go to work at all, which will result terrible consequences for your life!
When you find yourself not doing something because it frightens you, it is time to take a step back and examine the situation. Of course, there are some things in life that are genuinely dangerous and it’s appropriate to take precautions. But it’s important to realistically assess the risk. Ask yourself the following: What is the worst possible outcome? How severe is it? How likely is it? Then realistically assess the cost of avoidance. Ask yourself: What am I missing out on? What will it cost me in terms of time, money, relationships, and fun? What negative consequences could come from my efforts to avoid this potential danger? Can I afford to be anxious about this for the rest of my life? Can I afford to avoid this situation for the rest of my life?
Often you will find that the cost of avoidance is much higher than the potential risk of the situation. When that is the case, take a deep breath and push yourself to do the things that make you anxious. You will find that over time your overall anxiety decreases and you will be able to handle challenging situations much more easily.
Stay Connected with Other People
Exercise 4: Make and strengthen social connections.
Study after study demonstrates that social connectedness is a major factor in ongoing well-being and mental health and that social isolation is a big contributor to mental illness. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, in her fantastic book “Kitchen Table Wisdom” tells the story of a woman who did not seek assistance from others in an extreme medical crisis. When Dr. Remen asked her about what happened she reminded the woman that as children we are all taught to go to an adult for a kiss when we have a “boo-boo.” The woman replied that she never understood that because the kiss didn’t help with the pain. And Dr. Remen wisely replied – the kiss isn’t for the pain, it’s for the loneliness. Loneliness is for many people a deep emotional wound that is disregarded or even disparaged. Many people are raised with the idea that they shouldn’t ever need help or comfort from others. This is a silly idea. Human beings are social creatures. Our very nervous systems reinforce our connections to and need for other people.
Here are some ideas for making and strengthening social connections. If you don’t like my ideas, I challenge you to add some more. Have lunch with someone at work. Ask someone to exercise with you one evening a week. Call a friend or family member on the phone or send an email. Join an organization that does something that interests you – you start out focused on the activity but you meet people who like the same things you do and begin to make friends (some of the activities in my area, many of which are free: a church, a synagogue, another religious group, a running group, a biking association, a knitting gathering, a dinner club, a sewing circle, a book discussion group, a hiking club, a mother’s of preschooler’s meeting, soccer mom’s booster club, a regular yoga lesson… what’s available in your area?). Find an online community for something that interests you and spend time in chats and posting comments on other’s pages. Serve someone else – in a food pantry, a literacy organization, an SPCA, or other cause that is close to your heart.
Social connection does require an investment of time and energy on your part. But think about it this way – how much time and energy is your mental health worth? How much time and energy do you invest in things like TV or video games that could be more profitable if invested in other people? The investments you make in social investments will pay much richer (and more certain) dividends than any stock market investment.
There are many additional things you can do to stay mentally well. Exercising, practicing, gratitude, and nurturing your spirituality are three more I can think of. All of us want long, healthy lives. But making those long, healthy lives happy is just as important. I encourage you to begin some of these mental wellness exercises as part of your own wellness routines today.