Mental health + Brain Agility
Mental health is more than positive thinking or emotional health. Creating mental health is a process of learning how to regulate our nervous systems and creating rhythms in our lives that support our holistic well-being.
Our brains are the center of everything that happens in our bodies. Taking the time to learn about our how our brains and nervous systems function can empower us to live in more physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally healthy ways.
We each experience what it means to be human in unique ways, but our systems all mirror one another. This complex spectrum of human experience means 1) it should be easier to talk more openly about the prevalence of mental health issues and 2) that we have much to learn from each other's navigation of similar internal landscapes amidst such diverse experiences.
In honor of mental health awareness, and to bring more transparency to an issue that is so common (about 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental illness), this month I'll be unpacking mental health and sharing some behind the scenes perspectives on my own journey toward mental health.
Ten years ago, I made a formal commitment to go all in on my health. From the depths of deep depression and anxiety at the time, I knew this meant attending to each facet of my life in new and different ways. In practice this has looked like: weekly therapy, daily reading and journaling, (re)committing to my art, continuing education, focused professional development, understating nutrition and regular exercise. The course of action has been holistic, but it all started in a willingness to shift (and understand) my thinking.
Being responsible for the well-being of children and families through my teaching and consulting work has been a built in accountability system, requiring that I learn to show up for myself.
It's been a giant learning curve that stretches infinitely in front of me, but one thing I have learned worth sharing is: that we can isolate certain dimensions of our development, focus on them intentionally and rhythmically, growing new skills and insights along the way that help us cultivate greater holistic well-being.
We can design our lives with intention by focusing on our own health, ultimately improving the health of those around us in the process. As we move toward states of greater health, we feel better and in turn, our regulated nervous systems serve as healing stations for others (even without formally teaching what we have learned. Seriously! Science has proven this).
When people use the term 'mental health,' they are often referring to emotional challenges like depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Emotions are an integral part of mental health and they define our human experience. For self mastery, it can be helpful, to look at the brain as a series of complex interconnected systems made of many parts (in which emotional well-being is one part)....like how the engine of a car only works through its connection to the battery, transmission, and other components.
By understanding how our central nervous system functions we can become better moderators of internal processes (even unconscious ones) by bringing greater connectivity between systems. This is what is meant by 'neroplasticity.'
Committing to learning about ourselves, and practicing mindfulness concurrently, can help us steward our energy for things that bring us greater vitality and meaning.
Understanding ourselves through what Dr. Tara Swart calls the "whole brain approach" can help us navigate different modes of thinking, ultimately creating more options and skilled decision making.
The mental agility and self-care available through cultivating a mindfulness practice based in understanding of the whole brain is like adding more fuel to our metaphorical tanks, while increasing the speed and efficiency of our vehicles and upgrading the censor on the brakes... speaking from experience.
If you're ready for a system upgrade, here are five things you can invest your time in right now that will yield big returns in your mental health and life:
∞ Take up a mindfulness practice. (Reading about mindfulness or even taking a class can be a big source of support in establishing a mindfulness practice, which is scientifically proven to reduce stress.)
∞ Take time to learn about the nervous system and the latest in neuroscience.
∞ Invest in therapy. (More on this later as we look at emotions more closely, but even
from a logical standpoint: an objective opinion outside of yourself can be valuable perspective when you're stuck.)
∞ Journal regularly.
∞ Hydrate, sleep, and move daily. (More on this in a couple of weeks as we look at physicality, but it's crucial to brain health and worth mentioning now.)
Go all in on increasing your mental agility with these practices and watch your effort pay off big time in every area of your life. This has been the case for me over the past decade. It's been my joy and challenge to put this work in service to helping you do the same.