3-steps to improving and sustaining your mental health

Sunday, February 26, 2023 @ 10:03 PM

As human beings, we all face challenges and hardships in life that can affect our mental health and emotional well-being.

It's easy to find ourselves in situations where our mental health, or our emotional wellness is in a place of chaos. You may be struggling with strong feelings of anxiety, stress or depression, leaving you feeling paralyzed or debilitated.

Life doesn’t need to be this way. With self-reflection, support and some hard work, you can pursue a life full of joy, wellness and hope.

It is the topic of this article that we discuss how to develop a roadmap towards improving and sustaining your mental health.

Table of Contents
Getting to your destination: a mental health analogy 1
Step 1: It’s OK to not be ok’: Recognition of the problem 3
Step 2: Seeking help and setting a new trajectory towards positive mental health 4
Step 3: Setting ourselves on a journey of continuously pursuing mental health wellness. 4

Getting to your destination: a mental health analogy
Like many road trips, we set off with a destination in mind! “Today we are headed, from Calgary to the mountains!”. This is our first time driving this journey and it’s completely new! We pack up our stuff, get everyone into the car and start driving.

We think we know the way so we don’t have our GPS on and our phone is packed away to remove distraction.

As we continue to drive and get further from our starting location, we are surprised we cannot see the mountains in the distance; we also notice the ground is flat for as far as we can see; additionally, we are surprised that the sun in on the right side of the vehicle.

We begin to have a stronger and stronger feeling that ‘something is not ok’. As we evaluate these signs around us, we pull over, utilize our GPS and realize our fears are true: We have been driving east the whole time, away from the mountains. We are going in the wrong direction.

We install our GPS on our dashboard, plug in the destination, it plots a path, and we now start the back-tracking but on the right trajectory this time.

We turn the vehicle around, we navigate through the city and start going on the right path. Because we’ve now learned our lesson, we continue to check in with the GPS to make sure that we are still on track.

Finally, after the 30 minutes of back-tracking and the additional 60 minutes of driving, we reach our destination, Banff! We can now enjoy our day out and the beauty of the mountains and the town of Banff.

How this relates to our mental health.
This is a great analogy for our mental health (or the state of our emotional wellness). Many of us set off, as children, teenagers or adults with the ambition of being healthy, happy, successful people unencumbered by negativity, depression or anxiety (to name a few negative mental health signs).

After a few years, we start to notice the signs that ‘something is not ok’. We may be struggling with loneliness, addictions or not feeling like we’ve achieved what we had expected by this point in our life.

It’s at this point, like in the analogy, we need to review the ‘signs’ to determine if something is not okay. What is causing these negative feelings or outcomes? This article goes into more detail on this topic, later on, in Step 1: Recognition. If we continue to ignore the signs that something is wrong, we are going to continue down a road that leads to further mental health illness and stronger associated symptoms.

Leveraging resources and getting help
So in the analogy, once we detect something is wrong, we look for support from the GPS to determine if we are going in the wrong direction. Regarding our mental or emotional state, we need to do the same thing. We need to reach out for support and leverage available resources around us to determine if we need to ‘course-correct’ and set ourselves on a sustainable and life-giving trajectory. This is covered in this article in Step 2: Getting help.

Continuously developing ourselves and pursuing continuous emotional health improvement
So in the analogy, even though a course correction was made, there was additional driving time to back-track and then further driving toward the final destination. Similarly, in our own personal mental health journey, we may need to do some ‘back-tracking’. This may look like working through disappointments or missed expectations, forgiving people, and resolving past hurts, or processing life’s traumas (to name just a few).

Additionally, in the anology, we continuously go back to our GPS to ensure that we are still following the path laid out. In life, this is the powerfully important principle of self-reflection: am I continuing in a trajectory towards wholeness and health or am I starting to experience past or new negative mental health symptoms.

Step 3 of this article discusses ways that we can continuously develop ourselves and set ourselves on a journey of continuously pursuing mental health improvement.

There is no end destination when it comes to our mental health
It’s at this point where the analogy breaks down: In life, there really isn’t a ‘destination’ where we achieve perfect or complete mental health; it’s a continuous journey. It’s for this reason that what we discuss in Step 3 of this article is so vital: applying these Lifelong principles and practices will continuously support our growth and maturity as emotional beings.

Step 1: It’s OK to not be ok’: Recognition of the problem
Many of us have grown up in households, families, and cultures where our emotional state was either ignored, not appreciated or completely dismissed. Many of us may feel that it’s “not okay to be not okay”. Some of us may feel that, to admit that we aren’t ok, is a negative reflection on us, our families or our culture. This just isn’t the case. Here are 3 points that may help us understand why “It’s okay to not be okay”:

1. Mental health is a journey, not a destination: No one has a roadmap for life, understanding how every little interaction may impact you and your mental health. No-one is perfect, and everyone experiences ups and downs. It's important to understand that our mental health and emotional state is like a journey: There will be easy times, there will be difficult times, and there may be times where course corrections are required. This is normal and the reality for everyone.
2. Emotions are valid: Emotions are a natural response to life events, and they are valid no matter what they are. Whether it's anger, sadness, or anxiety, it's important to acknowledge and understand your emotions. What can be very detrimental is when we try to suppress or dismiss our emotions. In our analogy, that is like us ignoring all the signs that we are going east and we continue to drive in the wrong direction.
3. Mental health is just as important as physical health: In our society, many of us understand how to take care of ourselves physically: we need to eat well, exercise well, and get sufficient sleep. Well, mental health is just as important as physical health, and it's okay to prioritize it. It's important to take care of your mental health in the same way that you take care of your physical health. Additionally, your mental health can impact your physical health. Some great reading material on this topic is:
a. ‘The Body Keeps Score’ by Bessel A. Van Der Kolk and
b. ‘When the Body Says No’ by Gabor Mate

Now that we’ve understood the importance of our mental health and emotions, we can start to recognize signs that something may not be right and what resources can we call upon (like the GPS in our analogy) to get support and direction:

Step 2: Seeking help and setting a new trajectory towards positive mental health

So what are some ways that we can seek help and make necessary ‘course corrections’:
1. Seeking help from a mental health professional can help us understand what the root-cause issue may be that is impacting our mental health.
2. Find mentors that have a proven track record of having health in the area where you are struggling. Be intentional about asking for wisdom and guidance
3. Talk to people about how we are feeling. Openness and vulnerability can help us determine if what we are experiencing is simply just a stage of life or is the result of poor mental health or unsustainable situations we may find ourselves in.
4. Find good reading material. There are so many great books that can help us get a better understanding of our emotional state and educate us on ways of developing our Emotional Intelligence (referred to as EQ)

Step 3: Setting ourselves on a journey of continuously pursuing mental health wellness.

So, by this point, we have discussed how to recognize the signs of emotional or mental health concerns. Additionally, we’ve discussed how we can seek out help and get support.

Now how do we set ourselves up for success and wellness long term? Here are 10 tips for supporting and maintaining positive mental health:
1. Practice Self-care: Taking care of ourselves is important in maintaining good mental health. This can include activities like exercise, mindfulness, and hobbies that bring you joy.
2. Find community to connect and growth with: Mental health struggles are common and we are not alone. There are many resources available, including online support groups, hotlines, and local mental health clinics such as Master’s.
3. Talk about mental health: Talking about mental health is important in breaking the stigma and normalizing the conversation. Sharing our experiences with others can also provide support and help us feel less isolated.
4. Healing takes time: Healing from mental health struggles takes time and patience. Just like if you broke a bone, healing doesn’t come overnight, it takes time, rest and patience! It's important for us to be kind to ourselves and to understand that progress can be slow.
5. Recognize you are strong: Mental health struggles can be difficult, but you are strong for facing them. You have the courage and resilience to overcome them, and with the right support, you can find healing and peace. Make sure to find supportive people around you who encourage and build you up, not discourage and tear you down.
6. Find Healthy coping mechanisms: Finding healthy coping mechanisms is important in managing mental health struggles. This can include things like mindfulness, deep breathing, journaling, or talking to a trusted friend.
7. Medication and therapy can be helpful: For some people, medication can support the therapy process and can be helpful in managing mental health struggles. It's important to have an open and honest conversation with a mental health professional to determine what options might be best for you.
8. Set realistic goals: Setting realistic goals can help us feel more in control and give us a sense of purpose. Hoping to ‘not be depressed by next month’ after a lifetime struggle with depression is probably unrealistic. It's important to take things one step at a time and to be patient with ourselves. Have you ever taken a walk and turned around and been surprised how far you’ve walked? Approach your mental health journey that way: it’s a marathon, not a sprint!
9. Create a support system: Having a support system of friends and family can be incredibly helpful in managing mental health struggles. It's important to reach out to those we trust for support and seek help from mental health professionals when needed.
10. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health: Everyone's mental health journey is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting better. It's important to find what works for you and to be open to trying new things.

In conclusion, many of us may be struggling with low or poor mental health. If that’s you, you are not alone and it’s okay not to be okay. Our encouragement to you today is to a) recognize the state of your mental health, b) seek out support and help and c) set yourself on a journey of pursuing mental health improvement, recognizing that this can take time and effort but in the end it will be worth it.