Now that we’re well into 2021, we won’t mention why we want it to be an amazing year, or why we – at the very least – want it to be better than 2020. To be fair, we give January and February 2020 a pat on the back. For most of us, they were fine, uneventful months. But from March onward – yikes. We don’t need to rehash the past year – which felt like about five years – because you lived through them right along with us.
Suffice it to say we can all agree that with 2020 in the rearview mirror, we look forward to the new year.
One thing we can all focus on this year is our mental wellness. Mental wellness – which includes emotional and psychological wellness – is important no matter what’s happening in our lives or whatever situation we find ourselves in. It supports other areas of wellness, such as physical, social, and spiritual wellness. Our emotions and our thoughts are connected to everything we do. Therefore, it’s important to maintain awareness of this foundational aspect of wellness, and learn how we can both improve and maintain our mental wellness during mental wellness month – and for the rest of the year, too.
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“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
That’s a good place to start.
Mental Wellness and You
We use the WHO definition of health in order to understand that health is more than the absence of disease. When an individual achieves health, an individual thrives: that’s what we need to learn. The same is true of our mental health, i.e., our mental wellness. Mental wellness is more than the absence of mental illness or a mental health disorder. When an individual achieves and maintains a consistent state of positive mental wellness, the individual thrives – the same way a person who is truly healthy thrives when they achieve a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, as defined why the WHO.
That means that when someone asks “How ya doin?” the reply, “Not bad,” reveals far more than most of us realize. So does the reply, “Can’t complain,” or “Fine, just fine.” We know those are things people say to be polite, and not burden the person asking the question with the details of life that may cause us to feel less than our best. With that said, the goal of seeking and maintaining mental wellness is to answer the question “How ya doin?” with an affirmative and honest, “I’m doing well, thanks.”
The question we need to answer now is this: how do we get there?
How do we find a state of mental wellness?
Here’s the secret-that’s-not-a-secret: you achieve mental wellness through action. That may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s not: thinking your way to mental wellness is a catch-22. If your thoughts and emotions disrupt your overall wellness, then doubling down on thinking – which affects how you feel – can get you stuck in a rut. And the best way out of that mental and emotional rut is through behavior – which means you act your way to wellness, rather than think your way to wellness.
How to Achieve and Maintain Mental Wellness: Five Steps to Take
You can act your way to mental wellness by taking positive, proactive steps in five areas of your life: eating, sleeping, exercising, socializing, and helping others. The following list will help you take these steps, and get you started on the path to mental wellness:
The food you eat has everything to do with how you feel. If you know you need to change your eating habits, go easy on yourself. The trick here is to be safe, sane, and steady. The food that supports mental wellness is the food we know we should eat because we hear about it from day one. An ideal diet consists of whole grains, lean protein, and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, we need to stay adequately hydrated by drinking water throughout the day. A diet heavy in processed foods and sugar increases stress on your body, which can lead to mental stress, which decreases mental wellness.
If you need to make changes, start with something simple like eliminating fast food from your diet and planning to cook healthy meals a couple nights a week. Implement the changes incrementally, and you have a greater chance of establishing durable eating habits that support mental wellness. For tips on how to get teenagers to eat a more health diet, please read our article “How to Get Your Teen to Eat More Vegetables.”
The physical, mental, and emotional consequences of sleep deprivation are severe. Physically, a lack of adequate sleep, over time, can impair immunity and increase the risk of heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. Mentally, a lack of adequate sleep, over time, decreases optimal cognitive function. This impairs work performance, academic performance, and leads to accidents with serious consequences, such as automobile accidents. Emotionally, a lack of adequate sleep, over time, can increase stress, which, in turn, can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and alcohol or substance use disorder.
On the other hand, consistent and adequate sleep – meaning between 7-8 hours per night for adults and 8-10 hours per night for adolescents – protects against all the negative consequences of sleep deprivation, and supports overall mental wellness. To learn more about the importance of sleep for adolescents, please read our article “Teens, Sleep Habits, and Mental Health: What’s the Relationship?”
The benefits of regular exercise are well-known and well-documented. In a nutshell, exercise improves heart health, muscular health, bone health, and cognitive health. Regular exercise also decreases the risk of cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. Evidence shows regular exercise also improves mental health by decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression and reducing levels of stress. To learn more about how exercise helps adolescents in particular, please read our article “Exercise and Recovery: The Foundation of Total Health.”
Consistent social contact is generally associated with an increased sense of belonging, a decreased sense of loneliness, and increased self-esteem – all crucial aspects of mental wellness and overall wellbeing. In addition, research shows that simple socializing increases cognitive function. If you have a teenager who needs help making friends, please read our article “What to Look for in Friendships: Pre-Adolescents and Teens.”
5. Helping Others
The act of service is at once simple and profound. It’s simple because you can help others in almost infinite ways. If you’re a parent, helping your child navigate adolescence is what you’re doing right now, by educating yourself about how to improve your mental wellness and your teen’s mental wellness. If you’re a teen, you can help others by starting at home: help your parents around the house. And both parents and teens alike can help others by volunteering time and energy to help those in need – while following all public health guidelines, of course. To read more about the benefits of helping others – a.k.a. volunteering – please read our article “Teens: Five Good Reasons to Volunteer (That Have Nothing to do With Your College Application).”
Mental Wellness: Seeking Support
There’s something we haven’t mentioned here yet: sometimes thoughts and emotions become overwhelming, painful, and disruptive. When that’s the case, mental wellness may feel unattainable – and we understand. If you or your teen have trouble achieving and maintaining the “state of positive mental wellbeing” we describe above – if you and/or your teen aren’t thriving, and you know the tips above don’t or won’t help – then you may need to consider the possibility you or your teenager have a mental health disorder.
You can create mental wellness in the presence of a mental health disorder. The first step is to find a mental health professional and schedule a full evaluation. The second step is to collaborate with a mental health professional on a treatment plan specific to you and your needs. Treatment may consist of outpatient therapy, an intensive outpatient program (IOP), a partial hospitalization program (PHP), or a stay in a residential treatment center (RTC). The third step is to collaborate with a professional on a treatment plan, and the final step is to commit to and complete your treatment plan.
And guess what?
Treatment plans at high-quality treatment centers almost always include specific strategies to address the five areas that we mention above: sleeping, eating, exercising, socializing, and helping others. They’re the foundation of total health – and they can be your path to mental wellness not only during the month of January, but for all of 2021.