You go to the gym, but do you look after your mental health too?

Some tips on looking after your mental health.

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We all know we have to look after our physical health. From an early age, it is drummed into us: eat more vegetables, get out and exercise, wrap up warm. But, when are we ever told to take care of our mental health?

From my clinical work, I have come to believe that looking after your mental health is just as vital to your well-being as exercise or healthy eating.

So what do I mean by taking care of your mental health? What do you actually have to do? I have broken it down into 8 main strategies, and over the next 8 posts, I will give you some tips on looking after your mental health.

The first thing I tell clients is that you have to work at it. Just as with physical health, good mental health involves a degree of hard work and commitment. You would not expect to get fit by sitting on the sofa eating a jumbo tub of Ben and Jerry’s. It is the same with mental health. You need to put some effort in to reap the rewards.

So where do you start?

Acknowledge, feel and respect your emotions. I believe this is the bedrock of good mental health. As a therapist, I have come to realise that we are all masters of avoidance. Most of us will, it seems, do literally anything to avoid feeling painful emotions. We may binge eat, we may get hyper-busy, we might take drugs. All these strategies serve to block out, or stuff down, emotions that may feel uncomfortable, or even intolerable.

We tune out emotions because not only can they feel overwhelmingly painful but because society, or maybe our family when we were young, gives us messages that shut down our feelings. From the moment a small boy cuts his finger and gets told “big boys don’t cry”, we are encouraged to internalise our feelings.

In fact, so embedded is our emotional reserve, that some of my clients seem to squirm in their seats when I talk about experiencing emotions. They say that it feels too self-indulgent, or self-pitying.

I'm not arguing here for an emotional free-for-all, but reams of psychotherapeutic research has found that for optimum mental health we need to pay attention to and experience our emotions.

Good mental health means making space for emotions. We need to stop and listen to ourselves and how we feel. If we are eating or drinking compulsively, it means pausing before we reach for the next slice of carrot cake, or glass of Chardonnay, and tuning in. And asking ourselves, how do I feel right now in this moment? What's going on in my body?

If there is a tension in your chest, it means paying attention to that tension, breathing into it and being curious. What is it telling you? Can you name the emotion here?

That emotion may feel microscopically tiny, it may only be a snatch of a feeling, but by tuning in, we begin to let our emotions know that they are welcome, that they will not be stuffed down, or blotted out.

By acknowledging the emotion, we then have the chance to feel it. And this, I have found, is important, as whether we allow ourselves to feel them or not, the emotions are still present. We may stuff down our anger with a bar of chocolate, but the energy of that emotion will still exist. If we do not listen to it, and tend to it, it will most likely then get turned inwards, and perhaps turn into a behaviour you feel you cannot control. Or, as I find with many clients, morph into anxiety and depression. The grand-father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud described depression as anger turned inwards.

In my practice, I encourage clients to sit with their emotions: and let themselves really experience the emotion. If the moment is not right, and you are outside the school gates, or in a work meeting, I would encourage you to acknowledge the emotion and try to make time to return to the feeling later on that day.

Getting acquainted with your emotions has all sorts of benefits. In his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman found that not only were people with higher EQs (Emotional Intelligence) often happier than those with higher IQs, they were also more successful in life.

I think of emotions as guides that light the way to getting to know ourselves better. I find time and time again with my clients that as they allow themselves to experience their darkest emotions, their grief and shame, they free themselves up to also experience their joy and creativity. It seems that shutting down our most painful emotions, disconnects us from our positive emotions too. When we learn to sit with all our emotions, we find our way back to ourselves – and take a step on the path to better mental health.

In my next post, I will talk about the importance of starting slowly when tuning into your emotions, and gradually over time building up emotional resilience.