By: Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Associate Editor at Psych Central
Our mental health isn’t static.
It is something we can change and improve and build on. Which is why coach and speaker Miles Adcox prefers the term “mental or emotional fitness.” He says: “Fitness conjures the idea that we have some control and work we can do to improve the status of our mental and emotional well-being.”
The fact that our mental health is dynamic provides us with a great opportunity to learn and grow and create and course-correct.
Adcox defines mental health as “the power, understanding, strength, and empathy, around your mood and feelings towards yourself and others.”
Similarly, according to marriage and family therapist Austin Houghtaling, Ph.D, mental health is how we respond to stressors and relate to others and ourselves. Another critical component of mental health, Houghtaling said, is our emotional awareness: “How aware am I of my internal emotional climate and how does this influence my thoughts and behaviors?”
Our mental health can help us make truly supportive decisions. And our mental health can help us lead fulfilling, healthy lives.
Below, you’ll find three meaningful ways you can boost your mental health and create more fulfillment.
Reclaim empty spaces. Before technology, we used to have actual downtime: “moments in the checkout line, with our animals, pumping gas, mowing the lawn, walking down the street, or through an airport,” according to Adcox, owner and CEO of Onsite Workshops, an emotional wellness center located outside of Nashville that delivers personal growth workshops, inspiring content, leadership retreats, and emotional treatment. During these empty spaces and moments, we might’ve smiled at a stranger, daydreamed, admired the beauty around us, brainstormed ideas, or simply rested, he said. This was important. Because all these things constitute “some of the best medicine available for our hearts, soul, and mind.”
To reclaim empty moments, Adcox suggested limiting screen time, creating margins in our schedules, and saying ‘no.’ (These tips can help you set boundaries, especially if you tend toward people-pleasing behavior.)
Similarly, Houghtaling, the chief clinical officer at Onsite Workshops, believes that slowing down “may be the single greatest tool to begin changing our mental health for the better.” Because slowing down connects “you to yourself, others, and your surroundings.”
Slowing down can mean simply pausing for 60 seconds, noticing our breath and feeling our feet connecting with the ground, Houghtaling said.
It also can literally mean stopping to smell the roses—or pulling over for 15 minutes on your drive home from work to watch the sunset, he said.
In addition, Houghtaling suggested keeping a sticky note on your computer, or setting an alert to remind you to close your eyes and take four deep breaths. During this time, you might check in with a higher power or feel your feet on the floor, he said.
“Another simple mindfulness exercise is using your senses to identify five things you see; four things you hear; three things you can feel or touch; two things you can smell; and finally one thing you can taste.”
According to Houghtaling, we also can have a kind of sponsor or accountability partner who supports us in slowing down, and paying closer attention to the present. Maybe you email or text each other every night about a small miracle you noticed that day. Maybe you send a photo, or chat. Maybe you meet for lunch weekly or monthly and simply talk about your experiences with slowing down.
Identify unhealthy behaviors. Another way to boost your mental health is to be honest about the behaviors you’re engaging in that are disconnecting you from your feelings or leading you to avoid them, Houghtaling said. These behaviors can involve anything—from our screens, to several glasses of wine, to work.
To identify your unhealthy behaviors, Houghtaling suggested reflecting on these questions:
- Do I notice an uptick in how much I use _______ when I feel a particular emotion? If so, which emotion?
- Which emotions lead to which behaviors for me?
- What patterns do I notice in general? (For example, maybe you find yourself spending more time at the office whenever your parents are in town.)
- Have I received any feedback from others, even humorous, about a certain behavior? (For instance, maybe your colleague regularly jokes about how much coffee you drink before a board meeting. Maybe your best friend has commented that you’re constantly on your phone.)
- Is a certain behavior or pattern helping me to recharge and reconnect? Or is it actually a form of disconnection—“from people, feelings, responsibilities”?
Houghtaling also suggested talking to a friend or family member who’s able to challenge you, instead of telling you what you want to hear. “Ask them to observe your certain behavior over time and give you feedback. If you find yourself not wanting to ask someone for this feedback, that may give you relevant feedback in and of itself.”
Lastly, you can pick a certain behavior—scrolling social media, drinking wine—and abstain from it for 30 days, noting how you feel without it.
Expand your “window of tolerance.” This idea comes from prominent psychiatrist and neurobiologist Dan Siegel, who’s talked about expanding our window of tolerance with different emotions. According to Houghtaling, “this refers to a zone where we can experience a certain emotion and stay connected to ourselves and others, without either shutting down (hypoarousal) or ramping up (hyperarousal) to the point of disconnection.”
In other words, he said, we can use curiosity to explore and stay with an emotion, “without shutting down or revving up.”
The emotions you’re comfortable feeling and expressing (and not so much) may be affected by a variety of factors, including your childhood. As Houghtaling noted, some families have a large window of tolerance for sadness, but a narrow window for anger. For example, when you felt sad, your parents were compassionate, available, and happy to discuss your feelings and help you navigate them in a healthy way. But your parents taught you that anger is an awful emotion that must be avoided at all costs.
Houghtaling suggested processing our emotions with different forms of creative expression, such as journaling, writing a song or a poem, or painting a picture. He also stressed the importance of working with a therapist, who can help you understand how you process emotions, sit with difficult emotions, and learn effective coping skills.
Enhancing your mental health is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, Adcox said. “Doing our own personal work is not what we need, it’s what we all deserve.”