Why self-care is so important for our overall mental health (and what self-care looks like)
Mental health has become a hot-button topic in pop culture, to the point that comedians mention it in the setup for some of their jokes, many times to land a punchline about the actions of a controversial celebrity or some other relevant social issues. Elsewhere, broadcasters across television, radio, and the internet promote such initiatives as Mental Health Month for the purpose of helping make the issue a more communicative affair, and one that people can get into the habit of being more open about. The shedding of more light on the place and status of mental health can definitely be a good thing that can potentially yield some very positive results.
Yet, for all the attention and exposure that mental health has been getting in recent years, it is still important to recognize just how challenging the lifestyle of many people who are afflicted can be. The day-to-day task of managing mental health disorders is in many ways an individualistic experience. Doing so has a lot to do with one’s inner dialogue, and the ability of a person to live in their own head, so to speak. In many instances, a person with a mental health condition is dealing with feelings and aspects of perception that their peers may not. Therefore, it makes sense that an important aspect of mental health treatment is self-care.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) shares a collection of self-care techniques that people can use to handle their mental health issues. First is radical awareness, which was definitively addressed by Marsha Linehan, the creator of dialectal behavior therapy. Linehan said that radical acceptance is “completely and totally accepting something from the depths of your soul, with your heart and your mind”. This definition relies heavily on the idea that no matter what you do, you cannot change a situation. This approach can operate incredibly well as a coping mechanism when dealing with something that cannot necessarily be directly controlled. For something like mental health, following the method of radical acceptance can help a person to focus their efforts away from trying to get rid of their condition or pretending that it doesn’t exist, and instead concentrate their energy on accepting the disorder for what it is and the effects that are likely to happen as a result. This approach can be a powerful device for dealing with mental health issues in a straightforward fashion and achieving the type of clarity that can facilitate successful treatment for symptoms that could otherwise end up spinning out of control (1).
Other self-care techniques that NAMI shares include deep breathing, mental reframing, and engaging one’s own five senses. As simple as it may sound, deep breathing in counts of 5, 3, and 7 seconds can be quite effective for assuaging the brain with repetitive messages of reassurance that everything is going to be okay, especially in the face of factors that could trigger difficult responses of anxiety and discomfort. Once a person’s heart rate is slowed down back to a normal pace and they can calm down, a person will have a much easier time with handling their mental health issues with the most positive and reasonable outcome. Regarding mental reframing, this technique can be great for placing a person in the proverbial driver’s seat when managing an outbreak of their respective disorder, by choosing to reassign new contexts and meanings to the things that at first could affect them in a negative manner. So for example, a person could change the aggravating circumstance of being stuck in standstill traffic from being a hindrance to actually being some kind of advantage, thus stopping this event from being an emotional stressor. This could be as simple as using this time to buy new music online and playing it for the first time on the car’s speaker or calling a best friend on the phone to catch up. These types of friendly distractions can mentally reframe the meaning of a traffic jam from seeming like torture, to feelings of acceptance. This approach can do wonders for people with mental health conditions within these types of situations (1).
A very interesting prospect within the realm of self-care for mental illness is the emergence of mental health apps, which made a significant splash on the commercial market in 2020. Psycom.net did a report about mental health apps, sharing the insights of a therapist on the potential that these apps could have for reaching people who may otherwise not have access to effective treatment. An app could be a powerful option for those who either had physical limits to how they could travel for treatment, could not do so because of severe anxiety, or would not have the financial means to do so. Examples of these types of apps include What’s Up, Mood Kit, Calm, MY3, Mindshift, eMoods, Worry Watch, and Headspace (2). Mental health apps are still relatively new enough in the market that their overall effect on the medical field has yet to be fully seen, so further research will be helpful in gauging how important they’ll be to helping people manage their mental health complications.
Self-care is an approach that holds a powerful degree of promise for the successful management of mental health disorders and is hopefully an indication that easier times for dealing with mental illness are on the horizon to come.
- Pombo, E. (2019). Self-Help Techniques for Coping with Mental Illness. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/January-2019/Self-Help-Techniques-for-Coping-with-Mental-Illness.
- Truschel, J. & Tzeses, J. (2021). Top Mental Health Apps: An Effective Alternative for When You Can’t Afford Therapy? Psycom. https://www.psycom.net/25-best-mental-health-apps.