The Meaning of Mental Health

The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being. All of those aspects have been challenged in each one of us over the past couple years, so as I see it, we are truly all in this together.

The Mind / Body Connection

We are each made up of body, mind and spirit. One might think mental health only refers to the mind, but it is strongly influenced by the vagal connection between our brain and our gut. The vagus nerve, which connects the brain stem to the gut, is a key player in the sympathetic nervous system. When activated, the vagus nerve increases the parasympathetic tone, which aids in digestion and helps produce neurotransmitters that soothe and create happiness. Deep breathing, singing and dancing are all simple and effective ways to activate the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve pathway sends information both ways, affecting mind and body simultaneously. For example, the gastrointestinal tract is highly sensitive to emotion. Attention to mental health can greatly improve gastrointestinal issues. On the flip side, stomach or intestinal stress can show up as anxiety, depression or stress. Seeing your doctor and doing some tests to assess diet changes to support a healthy microbiome can lead to improved mental health.

Feeling All Emotions

Our mental health affects how we think, feel and act. We all go through periods of our lives that are more mentally challenging than others. We have challenging moments, days, weeks, months, and years; life is cyclical in that way. In order to experience pure joy, one must also experience sorrow. Pain and pleasure, though opposites of the spectrum, are both part of the human experience. Feeling all the emotions fully is what allows us to be real and present in our lives. Living life to the fullest and showing up for the entire experience of all emotions is the essence of being human.

Doing the Work

You can’t outsource your health and wellness. It’s an inside job. You can seek help, but ultimately you have to do the work. How you handle stress, relate to others and make daily choices is a direct result of the quality of your mental health. As Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher, said, “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” What is persisting in your mental landscape that you need to work on?

Spring Cleaning

Just as we do spring cleaning in our homes, we also need to clean our bodies and minds and put energy into our mental and physical health. What things can we identify as not working? What can we change to make our mental health better? Below are several tips for integrating mental health practices into your daily life to do the spring cleaning your mind regularly needs.

Integrative Mental Health Tips

Here are a few ways to integrate mental health practices into your day:

  • Connect with others – call a friend you haven’t seen in awhile.
  • Seek the positive – write down or say aloud 3 things you are grateful for.
  • Get moving – go for a walk in the morning.
  • Help others – make a meal, offer to help a neighbor, or find a volunteer opportunity in your neighborhood.
  • Prioritize sleep – 7-9 hours is ideal; create a habit of going to sleep at the same time each night and waking at the same each morning.
  • Practice coping skills – when a challenge arises, have a mantra such as, “I am safe, I am loved, I am worthy” and/or take 3 deep breaths before taking action.
  • Be present – meditate for 5 minutes, or notice a sight, sound, smell, taste and texture around you in the present moment.
  • Get professional help if you need it – call a therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist, or schedule an appointment with Dr. B to assess your needs.

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” -Siddhartha Gautama

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