This is the second installment in our discussion on mental health. Last week’s article was: three things you need to know. Mental health can be a complicated, confusing topic. Hopefully you found that helpful in understanding some of the basics. This week I wanted to share some thoughts on how get better. Much of the dialogue around mental health actually focuses on mental illness, when things go wrong psychologically or emotionally. We want to move beyond problems to discuss how we pursue health.
I loved studying counseling because it’s the study of how we change. All the major psychologists like Freud, Rogers, and Skinner gave us frameworks to understand what people are like, how problems develop, and most importantly, how we grow. Oftentimes, practitioners of these theories of change compete against one another. Additionally, the sheer amount of ideas, books, and research is overwhelming, both in the therapy world and the general public.
I observed—along with many others—that there are elements common to most or all models of change. One tool I use to conceptualize change is what you could call: the mental health wheel. The four basic elements of thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and relationships create the spokes of the wheel. Beginning on any of these four areas will get the wheel rotating in a positive direction; working on all of them together will get us roaring toward health.
Our thoughts form a natural place to begin. American society is heavily influenced by cognitive approaches to change. We tend to picuture our thoughts leading us to either healthy or unhealthy behaviors. Additionally, we now understand how we don’t just have experiences or feelemotions, our thoughts help us understand (or misunderstand) situations. The way we think influences our emotions, making them critical in the change process.
So how do we pursue health in our thought-lives? The basic concept is we take note of our thoughts, then we work to stop, challenge, and change the unhelpful ones, replacing them with healthy thoughts. The main questions to ask yourself are, “How are my thoughts contributing—positively or negatively—to the issues I’m feeling and what thoughts or beliefs would be more helpful?”
There are many different ways of going about changing in this area. One that’s particularly good is journaling. Externalizing your thoughts will help you make sense of them. It will also give you insight into how hard you’ve been on yourself, the unrealistic beliefs, and the things you might want to change. It’s also a great place to write new thoughts: you are worthy, you are grounded, you can have people who love you.
A common perspective holds that our behaviors flow out of our internal thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. Naturally, under this belief, changing those areas first is necessary to bringing about behavioral change. We’re actually learning that it’s just as common for our beliefs to follow our behaviors. This can be negative if we’re seeking to justify our actions, but it can also simply be a normal part of life. Our thoughts and our behaviors (and more) interact to form our beliefs.
On many occasions, beginning with our behaviors is actually easier than our thoughts. For example, when we feel depressed, it can feel unattainable to wrestle with our own thoughts, convince ourselves we’re not as worthless as feel, and get out of bed. One the other hand, setting an alarm across the room will probably get us out of bed, lest be die of annoyance. Once you’re out of bed and have normal schedule, it’s natural to begin to feel a change in thoughts and mood. Another common example is exercising. Exercising may not seem like a contribution to helping with Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar, or anything else, but it can oftentimes make a significant difference.
The possibilities are only limited by your creativity; any action can be a potential solution to what you’re dealing with. Learn a new hobby, go for regular walks, get a pet to care for, take a 5 minute break from studying every hour, write a letter to yourself. Any behavior that’s out of your norm can get the wheel rolling toward health.
Our emotions can be difficult to target directly. We tend to view our emotions as uncontrollable. They come and they go, sweeping us along with them. Additionally, our emotions seem to be the central aspect of the problem oftentimes. I’m sad, depressed, anxious, hurt, confused, and so on. Nonetheless, it remains critical that we address our thoughts and behaviors, but we must also attend to our emotions directly.
Two simple aspects of this are giving expression to your emotions and also not getting carried away by them. First, the expression of emotion is the basis for almost every therapy model. The most basic power of healing is in one human empathizing with another. That in itself changes us. Go to counseling, find a mentor, seek out a trusted friend. It’s critical to our mental health.
Second, we want to give adequate credit to our emotions, while also not letting them overwhelm us. The simple fact is that you are NOT your emotions. You’re not what you feel and not everything you feel is true. By the way, you’re also not your thoughts or behaviors either! All of these change and develop. There are all kinds of techniques for this like calming exercises or mindfulness. Try them out! One that I find helpful is imagining myself underwater in a crystal-clear lake. The water is completely calm even though I can hear a massive storm above the water. This is my picture of calm even in the midst of the chaos of my emotions. I use it when I’m on the verge of feeling overwhelmed.
Essentially, counseling would be obsolete if we all had better relationships and closer communities. Ideally, that’s where we would take care of our hurts. The whole field of Marriage and Family Therapy is based on the idea that a lot of our problems are formed because of our relationships. Think about the intersection between our thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and relationships. How has your family of origin impacted the way you talk to yourself, the way you act, and the way you deal with emotions? Dramatically! The cool thing is that although hurt comes from that fact for all of us, those same people hold the cure for how we grow past them.
Intimate relationships create mental health through support, caring, truth-giving, and more. Your relationships are a good indicator of the state of your mental health! It’s impossible to have good mental health without a reasonable degree of relational well-being. Many times our minds go to a significant other or the lack thereof. That’s not what I’m talking about! In fact oftentimes, we put too much emphasis on one person, which creates more problems for us. It’s relationships with many people: a significant other, family, work friends, classmates, church community, etc. All of these relationships contribute to a beautiful, healthy life and thriving, mental state. How can you seek out and further develop those relationships?
Finally, a complete wheel needs a hub. It’s the central aspect connecting all of the spokes. Spirituality forms the hub of the wheel. Spirituality isn’t a sub category of our lives, which doesn’t influence other areas. It’s integrated into everything we do, say, prioritize, and pursue. As we seek health through giving attention to our thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and relationships, we seek them spiritually and holistically. The key questions we need to ask are, “How do my thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and relationships, connect to what I believe matters and my purpose in life? Secondly, how do I honor God in those areas by pursuing health?”
NOTE: Medication may still be necessary. There’s no shame in that at all. However, while medication is changing the biology directly, the goal is still to change our emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and relationships to create lasting change. We don’t just want dependency, we want to seek health. Medication is like an extra push to get the wheel moving when we don’t have the energy to get it started ourselves. It’s like an electric assist bicycle.