Everybody understands the contributions good nutrition and physical fitness make to overall health. The pursuit of a healthy body has given rise to billion dollar industries. You cannot walk past a magazine stand or scan your Facebook feed without seeing an article about the latest fad diet or exercise trend. Phone apps permit you to personalize and measure your fitness and nutrition anywhere you go. But what about your mental health? A healthy mind has direct bearing on your wellness, too. Without doubt, our social, emotional and psychological states directly affect our thoughts, feelings and actions. Yet, most people are loathe to seek professional help for mental suffering compared to physical suffering.
In 2010, Bell Canada tried to bring this subject out of the closet with their Let’s Talk PR campaign. They engaged celebrities to deliver powerful messages about mental illness and consequently raised millions of dollars to support mental health initiatives in Canada. Regardless, they succeeded in moving the dial only slightly on this dialogue. On a deeply personal level, mental illness stubbornly remains a taboo subject. People do not talk about it honestly and openly with their family, friends and colleagues. In fact, many workplaces inadequately accommodate mental health problems compared to physical illnesses. For most people, the associated stigma of a mental illness causes them to simply suffer silently.
Mental Health & Childhood Conditioning
Often, the genesis of mental health problems begin during childhood when adults teach children to ignore emotional cues. While some families encourage expressiveness and help each other with personal problems, others have a long history of keeping “calm and carrying on” through life’s adversities. This culture of silence offers fertile ground to seeds of depression, anxiety and other mental health illnesses. Children who do not learn how to cope with difficult emotions in productive ways grow up on a bedrock of unhelpful learned behaviors.
For example, the human endocrine system triggers the formation of emotional tears in response to some types of stress. The eyes shed these tears to help the body expel built-up stress hormones. Gender stereotyping often leads adults to condition boys not to cry. They grow up equating crying as a sign of weakness. Such individuals fight back their naturally occurring stress management responses by denying, rather than working through their emotions. Their bodies remain in a state of stress, forcing them to deal with it in other ways. Aggression and bullying are some ways a child overcomes their own feelings of vulnerability, when nobody has taught them otherwise. Consequently, therapists commonly uncover bullies as deeply scarred individuals, themselves.
Childhood trauma plays a significant role in mental health as documented in the 1980’s Adverse Childhood Experiences, “ACE” study. Experts found that adults were more likely to suffer mental health and addiction problems if they experienced trauma during childhood. For every 4 or more adverse childhood events, adults had a 700% increase towards alcohol dependence. Those suffering 6 or more adverse childhood events risked a 3000% chance of attempted suicide.
Other Causes of Mental Health Illness
In addition to your upbringing, many other factors come into play to influence your mental health. Your genetics and brain chemistry play a very large role. If mood disorders, like uncontrollable anger, bipolar disorder or addiction feature commonly in your family, then you are biologically more prone to them, too. In addition, life experiences, like trauma or abuse, living in poverty and even suffering a childhood illnesses, can make an individual more vulnerable to mental health problems.
Consequently, it is important for everyone to take stock of their own mental health, particularly if you have a low threshold for coping with the curve balls life throws your way. To conduct this assessment, look at yourself from three different perspectives: your thinking, your mood and your behaviour.
Assessing your Thoughts
To start, consider your thought processes. Do you have a chronically pessimistic view of yourself and the world around you? Are you struggling internally but compelled to act like everything is normal for appearance sake? Do your thoughts constantly fill you with hopelessness and fear? Have you considered harming yourself or others? Is your inner voice consistently critical and harsh? Are you paralyzed with perfectionism which prevents you from completing tasks or trying new things? Do you suffer from racing thoughts you cannot keep up with? Does your thinking compel you to perform obsessive and irrational acts, like persistent hand washing, checking and re-checking whether the stove is off?
If any of these thinking styles resonate, you could be among the millions of Canadians who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, low self esteem, or anxiety. These are common issues and effective treatments are readily available for you.
How To Evaluate Your Emotions
Next, consider your mood. Everyone experiences ups and downs in life. However, a healthy individual will bounce back to normal within a week or two. Delve deeper if your mood does not improve for an extended period of time. Consider whether you are chronically stressed out or if your sadness, irritability and anger have lasted a long time. How long have you felt unmotivated and found less joy in things that normally used to lift your spirits up? Your mental health definitely needs addressing if your mood consistently affects your lifestyle and in particular, if it has resulted in a history of failed relationships.
While physicians can prescribe a wide range of medications to help you manage your mood, research proves that a two-pronged treatment plan, which includes psychotherapy, is more effective than medication alone. A psychotherapist can arm you with the lifelong skills you require to instill positive thoughts, behaviour, habits and attitudes to shore up your coping mechanisms. This will help reduce conflict in your life and allow you to productively participate in society.
Review Your Behaviour
Finally, take stock of what you actually do. Behavioural indicators of mental health problems include reduced activity and in particular, not feeling like getting out of bed. Sometimes it results in sleeping too much or too little. Have you pulled away from your usual activities? Do you exhibit low or no energy with unexplained aches and pains? Are you unusually confused or forgetful? It is not normal to be on edge, angry, upset and worried most of the time. And you should be particularly concerned if you are unable to take care of your kids or get to school or work on time.
If you are prone to bursts of uncontrolled anger, verbal abuse, physical violence, abusing alcohol or drugs, you are likely not dealing with stressful emotions in a healthy way. Such behaviour often leaves a trail of destroyed relationships in its wake. Consistent conflict with people around you and trouble finding connectedness with your loved ones could indicate depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders for which treatments are readily available. A trained therapist can provide an assessment of your situation and a treatment plan that includes identifying triggers that cause you to trip up in your relationships. Psychotherapy offers a pathway for sifting through and breaking down layers of unhealthy learned behaviour patterns so you can replace them with productive ones.
Trusting A Loved One
Often, a loved one will recognize your mental health problem well before you realize it, yourself. Before you become defensive about this, try to hear them out. Their concern often comes from a place of love. If your mental illness has cornered you into a miserable, dark and isolated place, then you have nothing to lose by succumbing to a professional assessment. In fact, most individuals discover this monumental first step to be the most relieving. From there, a trained therapist can guide you through a treatment plan, step by step, at a pace that is tailor made for you.
Despite their covertness, mental health problems remain commonplace in our society. In any given year, 20% of Canadians will suffer a mental illness; 8% of adults will suffer a major depression in their lifetimes and 1% will be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
If any of the situations described below apply to you, contact us as soon as possible for an assessment. There is no reason to suffer through an unhappy and unfulfilled life because of mental health challenges. Millions of Canadians, just like you, live with and successfully manage these “invisible” illnesses with medications and a trusted therapist by their side.
Laura Devlin is an experienced Registered Psychological Associate with over 10 years experience, and a co-owner at Beaches Therapy Group. We have helped hundreds of individuals manage their mental illnesses. Contact us to discover how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.