Sep 12

Checklist to Help Make an Emotionally Healthy School Year

 

Emotional health is just as important as academics when it comes to your child's or teen's wellbeing. Learn how to help them be emotionally healthy.

The school year is underway. Classes have begun, students are learning, and ideally, there’s a concerted effort among schools, home life, and other support systems to help students build academic success. Academics are important, but they’re not the only part of school. Our kids, no matter their grade, deal with an entire world of people and situations that impact their emotional health and wellbeing.

A child’s daily school experience involves learning, and it involves navigating the world of peers, teachers, other adults, expectations and routines that vary from classroom to classroom, lunchroom norms, playground dynamics, and more.

What’s often hard for parents is the fact that we can’t control much of what our kids experience during their school day. What parents can do, however, is to help their children create, fill, and maintain a school supply list for an emotionally healthy school year.

What, Exactly, Does Emotionally Healthy Mean for Kids and Teens?

Life isn’t perfect. School isn’t perfect. To be emotionally healthy doesn’t mean a child feels only happiness or other positive emotions. To be emotionally healthy means that a child (anyone, actually) is resilient, bouncing back from all of the bumps and potholes, and experiences wellbeing in spite of those bumps and potholes.

It’s sad but true: parents can’t control much of what their kids experience. Happy and true: parents can impact how their kids handle what comes their way every day at school. How? These supply-list concepts can help you help your child:

Help kids and teens identify and understand their emotions. Emotions are complex and can be difficult to understand. When kids’ can’t identify their emotions, the emotions become incredibly overwhelming and even harder to handle. Observe their body language, tone of voice, and content of their words, and reflect it back to them in a neutral, non-judgmental way. This will help them develop words for what they feel. When they can articulate their feelings, they begin to have power over them as opposed to letting the emotions control them. This leads to emotional intelligence and emotional regulation, both essential for emotional health.

 

Work with them to monitor their emotions and then choose thoughts. It’s common for kids to catastrophize, taking a bad experience and super-sizing it so that it encompasses everything in their world. For example, a child or teen who is shunned by a friend quite commonly will think that everyone hates him. When you notice this type of thinking, help him identify her emotions, and then help him put her thoughts in perspective. Have him name one person who was nice to him that day, and build from there. Helping kids and teens notice how their emotions are shaping their thoughts, and then helping them question their thoughts and look for other evidence is a very important part of helping them develop emotional health.

 

Allow kids to empower themselves through their actions. Emotional health involves three key principles: feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Kids can’t always control what will happen to them. They can, however, control what they do about it. Even the youngest elementary school student can begin to learn—and use—this lesson. The first step is item one on the school-supply list; kids need to learn to identify their emotions. Next comes monitoring both emotions and thoughts. With this awareness comes the ability to act. Help kids understand that they have a choice in how they behave. A crucial message for emotional health is you can’t always control how others act, but you can control how you react.

 

The positive. Help kids find the positive every day. I tell people, whether it was my students, it’s my own children, or it’s adults in my life, to make great moments in their day. “Have a good day” isn’t very empowering. Teaching your kids that they can make great moments in their day sends important messages; it tells them that they are in control of making their day great—they’re not dependent upon things they can’t control—and it tells them that even though an entire day might not be great, the day will have positive, great moments. This is a very important perspective for emotionally healthy kids.

 

An emotionally healthy child or teen views life realistically and positively. An emotionally healthy child or teen thrives in school, both academically and socially, despite problems. Creating an emotionally healthy school year means that you and your son or daughter are creating strategies for dealing with problems, keeping the problems separate from the self, and focusing on the positive. This, as much as anything else, is part of the foundation for life success.

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Sep 5

OCD: Wherever You Go, It’s There and In Control

What is OCD like to live with? It is a shapshifting disorder. Learn how people with OCD describe it. Is there hope for overcoming OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a life experience beyond a penchant for neatness, beyond lots of hand washing. It’s a mental health disorder involving racing, obsessive thoughts and repetitive, ritualistic actions taken to counter those thoughts. OCD can be life limiting and debilitating.

Knowing what OCD is, the facts and the symptoms of it, is very helpful. It increases understanding, which leads to healing. Knowing a list of symptoms, though, stops a bit short. It helps us understand the disorder, but it doesn’t help us to fully understand the people living with OCD.

It’s important to humanize OCD and to increase understanding and empathy. To do that, it’s necessary to know not just what OCD is, but what it is like. To develop this understanding, I’ve sought information from people who live with OCD, read their words, and watched vlogs.

Patrick, a man who lives with OCD, shares what it’s like for him:

I’ve found that OCD is a shapeshifting condition– whatever matters to me most in my life will become the target of all my anxious thinking. This makes it especially difficult, because you’re never able to leave it behind. Wherever you go, whatever new things you add to your life, it’ll be there, knocking on your door. It took me a long time to realize that the only way out of this tangled mess was to focus less on the content of the thoughts and more on the patterns they were adhering to. By noticing these patterns and refusing to let them dictate how I would make decisions in my own life, I started to feel a bit more like myself again. But there are still difficult points in every day, especially because a lot of my intrusive thoughts emerge during or after social interaction: did I do something wrong? Did I harm that person somehow? Maybe I should apologize. But no, I must not apologize!

Life with OCD: Common Themes

In gathering information from people like Patrick who live with OCD, themes and patterns emerge that consistently capture what it’s like to live with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

  • Thoughts! Thoughts! Thoughts! Intrusive thoughts, thoughts that people neither choose nor want, run incessantly through the mind and have been described as a broken record.
  • Constant, unrelenting mental discomfort. Ever-present negative thoughts create urges to do something to get rid of them, and this discomfort won’t up until this something, this compulsion, is acted upon. But relief is temporary at best because of thoughts! Thoughts! Thoughts!
  • Lost and wasted time that you can’t get back. Obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions can take hours or longer, robbing people of living life in ways that they’d rather.
  • Physical sensations. Many describe a prickly feeling on the skin, a tightness in the body, a vibrating “hum” in the body, or more that accompany the obsessions and/or compulsions.
  • Fatigue. Constantly battling overwhelming, negative thoughts and undergoing rituals to try to ward them off is exhausting.
  • Lack of control. Overwhelmingly, people who describe what it’s like to live with OCD talk about feeling like they have no control over who they are or what they think or how they live their lives. The thoughts overtake them, making even small daily pleasures that others take for granted, like watching TV or reading, impossible. When the thoughts that run through your mind aren’t your own and won’t go away, it’s not only exhausting but frightening.
  • Fear. That feeling of not being in control of the thoughts in your mind? People report that that is scary. Terrifying. Then of course there’s the content of the negative thoughts. The thoughts that come, unbidden, into the mind and stick there, are often disturbing to the person they’re consuming.

Does OCD mean Out of Control for the Duration of Life?

OCD is indeed controlling and life-limiting. It doesn’t have to forever remain that way. YA book author John Green, who lives with OCD, tells us that

It can be difficult to get effective treatment, but there is hope, even in your brain tells you there isn’t. The vast majority of mental illness is treatable, and lots of people with chronic mental health problems have fulfilling and vibrant lives.

What is OCD like to live with, beyond the facts and symptoms? Learn how people with OCD describe it. Is there hope for overcoming OCD? One tool that is incredibly helpful in treating OCD is an app called nOCD. It uses ERP, exposure response prevention, to help people regain their control. ERP, along with CBT, are the two therapeutic approaches proven by research to help people with OCD. The app, nOCD is customizable so users can tailor it to their own needs for maximum effectiveness. It’s a great supplement to therapy, and it’s completely free. You can download it here.

OCD robs people of their control over their minds, their actions, their time, and their lives. Happily, OCD is treatable, and people can thrive.

 

 

Further reading & sources:

 

 

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Aug 29

Why Do Therapists Use Mental Health Tests?

Mental health therapy can involve testing. It’s normal to wonder why therapists use mental health tests. Asking questions helps you get the most out of testing.

Questions about mental health and wellbeing are normal. We all have them because we all want to overcome obstacles to live well and thrive. Question and answer forums can help us sort things out.

For this reason, I’ve launched the weekly Wellbeing & Words Q&A Show on YouTube. I also write novels, stories that show characters—representative of real-life people—dealing with mental health challenges or loved ones that have such challenges. These stories can answer questions you might have and address topics you need or want to know about.

Bringing the characters and stories to life not just in the books but here on the Wellbeing & Words blog can address common questions, too. Here, characters have a chance to explore questions and concerns and to share them with you.

Today’s question comes from Brian Cunningham, protagonist of My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel. At age 37, he’s seeing a therapist for the first time in his life (he doesn’t want to do so, but his mother made the appointment). He has debilitating anxiety and would like help, but he’s nervous and afraid. When at his first appointment his therapist, Dr. Beth Greene, wants him to take an test, he has concerns.

Why Do Therapists Use Tests and Inventories?

Part of therapy can involve the use of assessments, especially at first so therapists can learn more about the client and the symptoms he is experiencing. This helps focus treatment. Naturally, many people are nervous about the idea of being tested, including Brian.

Brian: Is it a test?

Dr. Greene: It’s an assessment, so kind of. I hate to think of it as a test, though, because unlike tests, this doesn’t have right or wrong answers. It’s technically called an inventory because that’s more accurate. It’s a record of traits that apply to you. Every single person is different, with unique traits. This inventory helps people identify and understand them.

Brian: Yet again, I don’t know what to think. It’s reassuring to know there are no right or wrong answers, although I have the distinct feeling that I’ll manage to do it wrong anyway. After I settle into a chair, Dr. Greene puts the booklet in front of me and grabs a pencil from the cup in the center of the table. I glance at the booklet. The front cover prominently displays “MMPI-2” above the words ”Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory 2.” There are other words, too, but I can’t read them because they’ve blurred and are floating around on the page as the room tilts. I shove the booklet away and leap to my feet. I have to brace my hands on the surface of the table for support.

Dr. Greene: I’m so sorry that I didn’t explain the name of this inventory before plopping it down in front of you. Personally, I think that the name is misleading. It’s not a personality test the way people think of personality tests. It really is just a grouping of traits. It helps me learn about people so I can work with them better, and even more important, it helps people understand themselves. This can be used by us to look at some things that might be causing you some difficulties, and that can help us plan some things to do. That’s it. This isn’t a judgment of who you are as a person, Brian.

 

The idea of mental health testing in therapy makes many people nervous. Are these pass-fail types of tests? Do they pass judgement? Do they assign permanent labels to people? These are legitimate concerns that deserve an answer.

When done correctly, tests are used the way Dr. Greene used the MMPI-2 with Brain: They gather information. Mental health tests are communication tools, allowing the client to express concepts to the therapist and allowing the therapist structured ways to talk to the client. The results of any test are used by both counselor and clients to better understand problems, choose the best treatment options, and set goals for overcoming difficulties.

Mental health testing increases understanding. It can also be a map guiding you toward your own ideal destination.

 

Do you have a question or a topic you’d like discussed on the Wellbeing & Words Q&A Show on YouTube? Submit it here:

 

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Aug 22

Are My Racing, Obsessive Thoughts OCD?

OCD involves racing, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that disrupt life.

 

OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is a debilitating illness that involves, in part, racing and obsessive thoughts. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, OCD affects one percent of American adults—that’s over three million adults in the United States alone. Because it impacts millions and has been portrayed in movies, television, and books, the term OCD has become fairly well-known; however, obsessive-compulsive disorder is often misunderstood, leaving people wondering  if their racing, obsessive thoughts are OCD.

If someone has racing thoughts or a need for neatness and order, does he/she have OCD? Diagnosing OCD can be complex and requires a medical or mental health professional, but there are telltale signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder (both what it is and is not) that can help you decide if your racing, obsessive thoughts might be OCD.

Perhaps it might be helpful to first look at what OCD is not. Because of the misuse of the term, there are a significant number of people who are worried that they have this disorder that is rooted in the brain’s functioning. When I was a high school teacher, I had a surprisingly large number of students over the years fear that they “were” OCD (another misuse of the term; people have OCD, but they aren’t OCD) because they were bothered by messes, disorganization, crooked wall hangings, and misaligned items at the front of the room. Many times, those students needed to straighten and tidy before settling down to work in class. One student was worried because she needed to double-check doors at night to ensure they were locked. Certainly these are indicative of OCD, right?

Actually, not so much. OCD is a brain-based illness that significantly disrupts someone’s life and can make functioning extremely difficult or downright impossible, depending on the severity of the disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder involves thoughts (the obsessive part of OCD) and/or behaviors (the compulsive part of the disorder). OCD includes

  • intrusive thoughts (things that pop into your mind uninvited and won’t go away) that frequently race; they can feel like bubbles in a pot of boiling water that continue to form and bounce faster and faster, crashing into each other and continuing on and on and on
  • obsessive thoughts; the bubbles in the above example don’t change but instead have the same words and images that race and ricochet in someone’s head
  • anxiety; anxiety often causes the intrusive and obsessive thoughts, and the thoughts contribute to more anxiety, which leads to more thoughts, which leads to more anxiety… Anxiety is the fuel that heats the water that makes the bubbles that race and crash
  • rituals of behavior that are done to make the obsessions and anxiety disappear; they may or may not relate to the obsessions (anxiety about harm to self or others might lead to checking behavior to ensure safety or it might lead to counting in one’s head, for example)

If you are experiencing obsessive thoughts that are bothersome and are concerned about whether or not you have OCD, consider the severity and the degree to which the thoughts and possible compulsive behaviors are interfering in your life.

  • Do your thoughts consume you, making it difficult to think of anything else and get anything done?
  • Does your anxiety block your ability to interact at work, home, and in relationships?
  • Do you have compulsive behaviors that you feel you must do in order to control the thoughts?
  • Do these obsessions and compulsions consume a significant portion of your time? (For example, checking locks two or three times before sleeping isn’t all that disruptive, but staying up for hours and hours because you are repeatedly checking the locks is indeed disruptive.)

If you are having trouble living the life you want to live because of racing, obsessive thoughts and accompanying compulsive behaviors, you might consider talking to your doctor or a therapist.  If you’ve already been diagnosed and are in treatment for OCD, there’s a new tool for taking charge of your treatment and getting your life back. It’s an app, and it uses Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) to complement the work you’re doing with a therapist. Learn more and download the free app.

nOCD is a free app that puts control of your life back in your hands.

 

 

 

 

 

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Aug 15

How to Quiet Your Mind

 

Quieting your mind is important for mental health, including reducing stress and anxiety. With patience and practice, you can quiet your mind. Learn how.

 

The idea of quieting the mind seems like a foreign concept, esoteric and perhaps even the stuff of science fiction. As our society get busier and noisier and faster, so, too, do our minds. Stress levels have skyrocketed, tens of millions of people live with anxiety disorders and more than that experience bothersome anxiety that isn’t quite diagnosable as a disorder. “Agitated” has become the new form of “calm.” Because of this, experts in the fields of psychology, mental health, wellbeing, spirituality, and common sense agree: it is more important than ever to be able to step back and quiet the mind.

It’s a conundrum. Our mind races with thoughts of stressors, worries, and fears. Racing thoughts become broken records, and we begin to focus too much on these thoughts, strengthening and perpetuating them. We overthink. For our own health and wellbeing, we need to become still, to quiet our mind. But because of our racing thoughts, becoming still seems impossible. The harder we try to quiet our mind, the busier our mind grows.

To be sure, quieting your mind is challenging. Doing it, though, brings deep peace. Imagine facing the same stressors you face now but feeling at-ease in spite of them. Imagine, too, possessing the ability to believe fully in yourself and rise above stress and anxiety. Quieting your mind brings these mental health benefits. With patience, practice, and persistence, you can quiet your mind. These five tips can help you along your journey:

5 Tips to Learn How to Quiet Your Mind

  1. Become physically still and comfortable. The mind and body follow each other in a dance.
  2. Breathe slowly and deeply. Let your mind concentrate on your inhalations and exhalations (but don’t force it).
  3. Be mindful. Tune in to your senses. Pay more attention to what you see, hear, feel, and smell than your thoughts.
  4. Accept your thoughts rather than fighting against them. Allow negative thoughts to come and go while you do your own thing and practice mindfulness.
  5. Gently conjure images of positive things, such as your personal values and goals. Visualize yourself experiencing them.

For the visual among us, here are the principles in graphic form.

Quieting your mind is important for mental health, including reducing stress and anxiety. With patience and practice, you can quiet your mind. Here's how.

 

One of the approaches to mental health and wellbeing that promotes the above principles is acceptance and commitment therapy.  With ACT, you define what’s important to you and learn how to accept what you can’t change while taking charge of creating a high-quality life. For a workbook that shows you how to quiet your mind and create your life worth living, check out Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 Steps.

Using the five steps to quiet your mind will help you, over time, create inner peace and contentment. The stressors will remain, but you won’t become trapped in them.

 

 

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Aug 8

Enhance Your Emotional Health with a Bare Spot in a Garden

We can enhance our emotional health with a bare spot in a garden. Creating a bare spot helps shift perspective and appreciate beauty despite what’s around us.

 

Emotional health is an important component of our mental health and has to do with our subjective emotions like joy and sorrow, pride and shame, self-love and self-loathing, and more. While it’s true that emotions come and go, often striking us seemingly out of the blue, it’s also true that we are not powerless in the face of our feelings. While we might not entirely stop them, we can rise above negative emotions in order to live well in spite of them. One way to do so is by creating a bare spot in your garden.

A brief visualization exercise might be helpful here. Close your eyes and imagine a beautiful, lavish garden. What does it look like? What flowers or plants are present? Are there trees? Would you enjoy a pond, and if so, what is in it? How do you enjoy this garden? Are there comfortable benches or a swing within the garden or nearby? Perhaps there’s a winding path for walking meditation. Now become still and appreciate the beauty of this garden. As your eyes roam, your gaze falls on a patch of bare ground, dry and devoid of visible life.

Perspective and Emotional Health

As you continue to observe, where do you find your focus? Are you returning to the bare spot over and over again, are you seeing it while you’re looking at the beauty around it, or are you ignoring it and avoiding looking anywhere near it? Your response to the bare patch, a response you can learn to choose intentionally, is an important factor in your emotional health.

Our negative emotions are often responses to external events in our lives. We face stressors and problems on a daily basis. Some are chronic, such as toxic relationships, a hostile work environment, the effects of trauma, or caring for a loved one who is ill or disabled. Additionally, our negative emotions can be caused by internal factors such as mental illness or other mental health challenges.

Like everything in life, emotions are neither all good nor all bad. Just as there are negative emotions, there are positive ones, too. Some are a mix of both. Self-conscious emotions, those that deal with our feelings about ourselves, can be positive and motivating or negative and damaging. It’s actually not the emotions themselves but what we do about them that determine our emotional health.

The situations, whether external or internal, that cause unpleasant or life-disrupting emotions are the bare patches in the garden of life. Compared to everything else around them, they’re ugly. Barren. They seem to have nothing to offer. They ruin the garden. How can someone enjoy the garden of life and make it a garden worth being in when there are unsightly, dirty patches?

It’s a legitimate question that leads to some very important questions:

  • What is the rest of the garden like?
  • Is the bare patch truly capable of ruining the entire rest of the garden?
  • Does the spot make the nearby vegetation worthless?
  • Is the bare spot in control of what you see in the garden, or are you in control of your perspective?
  • Are you looking exclusively at the bare spot in the garden of your life?
  • Are you trying hard to avoid it but find yourself unwillingly focusing on it (because if you try not to think of X, you’re still thinking of X)?
  • Are you seeing the complete garden, all of it—flowers, bare spot, and all—and appreciating its beauty for what it is?

To Enhance Mental Health, Appreciate Beauty No Matter What Surrounds You

Reflecting on your complete garden allows you to appreciate real beauty, the wonderful flawed beauty that is life and people and gardens, and to develop the emotionally healthy perspective that allows you to see the good that exists despite the not-so-good. Appreciation of beauty, incidentally, is one of the character strengths that research in the field of positive psychology has shown to be a component of mental health and wellbeing.

I planted a small flower garden in my backyard, and I purposely left a bare spot as a reminder to check my perspective, appreciate beauty, and maintain emotional health and wellbeing. Negative and positive will always exist together. It’s how we see it that enhances our emotional health.

Consider planting a garden of your own. If you don’t have a place for a garden, you might buy plant and a flower pot that is bigger than necessary. You’ll have your own mini garden, complete with a bare spot, as a reminder of perspective and emotional health.

 

 

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Aug 1

Life, Mental Health are Balancing Acts

So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
                              —Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss certainly knew his stuff. Life—and mental health—are indeed a Great Balancing Act. Specifically, they’re about balancing doing with being.

The Act of Doing

Doing is the stuff of life. We must do in order to live. We rise in the morning and forge ahead into the day of relationships, chores, work, and a seemingly endless to-do list of random yet crucial tasks. This doing is action and is vital for life-living, mental health, and wellbeing. Some of the benefits doing include:

  • meeting your needs—securing food, water, shelter, love and belonging, financial resources, etc.
  • creating a sense of empowerment—I can do it!
  • providing a source of energy—I am doing it and I’m charged up to keep going
  • building self-confidence and self-efficacy—”I didn’t think I could, I didn’t have the energy, but I did it anyway.”

Yes, taking action is crucial for our mental health and wellbeing. Taking even small steps, doing little things, goes a long way toward the place you want to be.

Despite the fact that doing is vital, too much action (or feeling too much pressure to act) can be damaging to our mental health and wellbeing. Living our lives on a hamster wheel can lead to

  • increased stressed, which negatively impacts mind, body, and spirit
  • fatigue, which is caused by too much emphasis on doing as well as the accompanying sleep disruptions
  • anxiety—the sense that nothing is ever done, is ever good enough and that you should be constantly working in order to be worthy, accepted, secure, etc.
  • depression— too much doing can throw us, including out brain chemistry, out of balance and negatively impact our mental health so significantly that we develop depression.

The Balancing Act: Doing and Being

If too much doing does more harm than good, its seems logical that we should stop doing that. Logical, perhaps, but it’s not always easy. Have you ever noticed that when you want to stop doing something, it becomes difficult? That’s because there’s an important piece missing: replacement.

To reduce something isn’t enough. We have to replace it with something else in order to fill in the hole left when we stop something. Replacement brings balance to our lives. In this case, to nurture our mental health by reducing our habit of frantically doing, we need to reduce the amount of harried action we’re taking and replace it with the opposite of doing: being.

Our being is our nature, the core of our self. Being is existing. It’s honoring who we are and allowing ourselves to be in each moment. Being involves mindfulness, using all of your senses to be fully present in the moment. It involves slowing down when you’re feeling agitated and taking slow, deep breaths to calm yourself down. Being is discovering what you like and doing more of it. In a state of simply being, we don’t feel pressured to do.  Being benefits our wellbeing in numerous ways, such as

  • quelling self-doubt—when we honor and accept ourselves for who we are, we begin to believe in ourselves more and more
  • relaxation—when we allow ourselves to just exist without the pressure to constantly do, we can let go of stress and reduce tension
  • stress-relief—when we allow ourselves to just be, our thinking slows, our muscles relax, breathing becomes slower and deeper, and we feel centered rather than pulled frantically in multiple directions.
  • enjoyment—when we slow down and let ourselves exist without self-judgment and rules for what we “should” be doing, we free ourselves up to discover what brings us meaning and to pursue it wholeheartedly.

Too much of either one, of being and doing, isn’t desirable. In excess, both disrupt our mental health and wellbeing because of a lack of balance between the two. We need to be do-ers, and wee need to be beings. We need a balance of doing and being, of action and relaxation.

Doing and Being: A Balance Budget

Achieving a balance between doing and being can be easier said than done. It’s one thing to know that this balance is important and another thing altogether to create and maintain that balance. First, know that it’s a process. It takes time to figure out what your personal balance looks like. Then, the balancing act takes practice. These two tips can help you achieve the balance:

  • Make lists, draw pictures, cut out images, or otherwise represent all of the things you have to do/want to do and all of the ways you like to relax, enjoy, and be—this will help you what’s important to you in both categories
  • Create a budget. Give yourself a certain number of “units” to spend in the doing category and in the being category each day. Track your spending to ensure you’re maintaining the balance you desire.

Striking a balance between doing (going, going, constantly going) and being (allowing yourself to relax and resist) will help you attain and sustain mental health and wellbeing.

 

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Jul 25

Talk about Mental Health in a New Way: Start a Book Club

 

Mental health book clubs allow us to talk about mental health in a new way. Explore the benefits of a mental health book club and get tips on starting one.

There’s much for us to gain by talking about mental health.

Globally, talking about mental health brings the topic of mental health and its challenges and disorders out of the dark shadows and into the sunlight. It can be seen and heard and felt. It can even be tasted: NAMI Seattle holds an annual Depressed Cake Shop (an event that began in the UK and is spreading around the planet), an event that raises both funds and awareness.

Individually, having mental health conversations legitimizes the fact that hey, we all face challenges—whether or not they’re diagnosable as a mental illness—and allows us to share experiences, feel normalized, and develop strategies for maintaining optimum mental health. How, though, does one easily and safely go about talking about mental health? Through a book club, of course.

I started a book club with my local NAMI chapter. In short, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is an organization that provides support and education for people living with mental illness and for family members/care givers of people living with mental illness. People whose lives have been touched by mental illness in some way can enhance their mental health and wellbeing through NAMI’s services.

Even in such a supportive environment, it can be difficult to talk about mental health when it’s so personal. The Wellbeing & Words Book Club, like all book clubs, offer a way to discuss tough issues in a safe way—through characters and setting and plot and storyline that is tucked safely between covers.

Books aren’t a way to hide, though; instead, they’re a way to express. They humanize the broad concept of mental illness. Books and their clubs spark open-ended questions and encourage exploration and discussion. Mental health books, both fiction and nonfiction, show what mental illness is like. They inspire hope of recovery.

In the Wellbeing and Words Book Club, participants naturally and comfortably share their own stories as they relate to the book. Books offer a safe platform on which to walk. Some participants prefer to discuss only the books themselves, and they can do so without the pressure to get personal. It is, after all, a book club rather than a support group. The support that happens comes naturally through the books themselves.

Interested in starting a mental health book club? These tips might be useful:

  • Find a local organization to host. Many organizations welcome new ideas and the chance to enhance the way they serve their communities.
  • Hate the idea of asking an organization to host? That’s okay! Start your own. Most general book clubs meet on their own, usually at someone’s house or a restaurant, and initially involve just a few friends or acquaintances.
  • Use Goodreads to develop a list of mental health books. You can search their lists for such books.
  • As you read, jot down topics that stand out to you and use those as starting points.
  • Focus on takeaways. What did each member gain from the book that he/she can use in daily life?

Perhaps I’m biased about the power of mental health books, as that’s what I write. I do so intentionally because books have the power to influence lives, to increase understanding, to develop empathy. Sharing books with others is a great way to talk about mental health in a new way.

 

 

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Jul 18

How to Handle ANTs to Increase Mental Health and Wellbeing

Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs, can decrease mental health and wellbeing. Learn three ways to handle ANTs to enhance mental health, wellbeing.

Recently, in ANTs—Automatic Thoughts Can Ruin Your Picnic, I explored how ANTs can be pesky little creatures that get in the way of our living life fully. These automatic negative thoughts that pop into our minds in certain situations can cause great stress and anxiety. They can even intensify depression and aggravate other mental illnesses. We all have ANTs (they’re not exclusive to mental illness). Unfortunately, it’s natural for the human mind to get stuck in unhelpful thought patterns that drag us down. (Follow the above link to last week’s post to see a list of common ANTs.)

There are ways to deal with ANTs so they don’t ruin the proverbial picnic of your life. Here are three approaches whose effectiveness has been proven by research.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an approach to healing that focuses on our thoughts. A fundamental belief of CBT is that events, situations, and people aren’t problems; instead, our thoughts about those things are the problem. Therefore, if we change our thinking, we change our perception, interpretation, outlook, and overall happiness.

To get rid of the ANTs at our picnic, CBT has us identify our negative thoughts and then look for evidence to prove that the thoughts and beliefs are faulty. This approach is supported by research and is helpful for many people (nothing is helpful to everyone, which is why there are so many therapeutic healing approaches).

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an approach to mental health and wellbeing that doesn’t have people fighting with and focusing on their ANTs but instead has people shift their attention to their values, those things they hold dear, and actions they can take to create the reality they desire.

ACT allows people to define what it is that makes a great picnic and take specific measures to enjoy it. ACT acknowledges that life does contain ants (and helps us accept that fact), but we don’t have to let them ruin things for us.

Passions, Actions, & Relaxations

Another way to deal with ANTs, of getting them out of your picnic, is to be intentional about the picnic you create. We can’t create a perfect, ant-free picnic. Life contains problems and challenges, some small and some big. We do have negative thought patterns that of course we can identify and replace but not completely and permanently eradicate. By pursuing our passions, taking positive actions, and practicing self-care that relaxes and rejuvenates, we can turn our attention to things other than ants and ANTs.

To be passionate about books is a happy passion indeed. Books hold great value for our mental health and wellbeing. This infographic shows just seven of the many positive things books can do for our picnic.

Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs, can decrease mental health and wellbeing. Learn three ways to handle ANTs to enhance mental health, wellbeing.

Fill your picnic basket with good books, lie back, and enjoy getting lost in a book. It’s a great way to beat the ants and ANTs and enhance your mental health and wellbeing.

Listen to the July, 2017 Wellbeing & Words show to hear more! Scroll down to the picnic image.

 

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Jul 18

ANTs—Automatic Negative Thoughts— Can Ruin Your Picnic

ANTs are automatic negative thoughts that pop into our mind. ANTs can ruin your picnic, your mental health and wellbeing. Learn more here.

Are ants trying to ruin your picnic? If you’re human, it’s quite likely that they are. Ants are pesky little critters that love picnics, and ANTs are pesky little (or big) thoughts that love our mind. No matter what kind of ant you are dealing with—the insects or the negative thoughts—you don’t have to let them ruin your picnic.

In the world of psychology, ANT is an acronym for automatic negative thoughts. These are thoughts that pop into our mind without us giving them much thought. From the moment we are born, we begin to take in the world around us. We see things happen, we watch the reactions of others, and we feel and become aware of our own responses and emotions. As we grow and develop, we form cognitive distortions, ways of thinking about ourselves and the world that are our own unique interpretations.

Here Come the ANTs

Think, for example, of two toddlers. Both are outside playing and exploring, and both stumble over a rock, falling to the ground and scraping a knee. Bewildered and a bit stunned, the children turn to the parents to gauge their reactions.

The parent of one child rushes up, very anxious and tense. This parent swoops up the child, frets and worries, points out the problematic scrapes, and tells the child that he should stay away from the rocky area and even sit down out of harm’s way. The child starts to cry, and he begins to learn that the world is dangerous and anxiety-provoking.

The parent of the other child approaches him calmly. The parent swoops him up playfully and assesses the boo-boo in an attentive but silly manner. The child giggles. Then, the parent suggests that they check out the rock. Finding that the rock is just fine, the parent and child move the rock out of the way. The child resumes playing. This child learns that he can fall and get scraped, but that things are still okay.

The first toddler is forming automatic negative thoughts about himself and the world, ANTs that could very well negatively impact his mental health and wellbeing. The second toddler, on the other hand, is also forming automatic thoughts. Some are negative (the rock, after all, was jarring, causing disruption and pain), and others are positive. As these children grow, countless incidents that occur every single day will shape their outlook.

It’s like this for all of us. We form automatic negative thoughts throughout life. ANTs are present, they bother the way we think about ourselves and the world, and they can block the actions we want to take.

ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) Are Specific

Because we come into the world assessing whether it’s safe and if we’re loved and cared for, and because we become worried and anxious when our basic needs aren’t met, we develop a negativity bias that influences our thoughts; thus, we form automatic negative thoughts. For decades, researchers have studied thinking patterns and have developed a list of automatic negative thoughts common to us all (people have these in varying degrees and intensities). In The Feeling Good Handbook (Burns, 1999), Dr. David Burns, lists 10 cognitive distortions, or ANTs:

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking or Black-and-White Thinking (seeing things/people as either all good or all bad)
  2. Overgeneralization (seeing one event or situation as representative of your entire life)
  3. Mental Filter (dwelling on the negatives while ignoring the positives)
  4. Discounting the Positive (acknowledging something positive but dismissing it as insignificant)
  5. Jumping to Conclusions (mind reading—assuming others are thinking negatively of you—or forutne-telling—predicting that things will go poorly)
  6. Magnification/Minimization (blowing things out of proportion or reducing their significance)
  7. Emotional Reasoning (letting your feelings drive your thoughts; if you feel anxious, things must be scary/bad/worrisome)
  8. “Should” Statements (imposing rules on yourself, others, or the world)
  9. Labeling (using harsh labels to describe yourself)
  10. Personalization (unjustly blaming yourself or others for situations, circumstances, etc.)

These thoughts can intrude on the picnic of our lives. When we allow our negativity bias to have a welcome place on our picnic blanket, we make a nice, easy path for ANTs to rush in, multiply, and take over. They even burrow into the picnic basket and creep and crawl on all of the sweet stuff in our lives. Some of the ANTs, such as the ones that discount the positive, minimize the good, or magnify the ants-y picnic, make it seem like we can’t do a thing about our ant-infested life.

ANTs Don’t Have to Ruin Your Picnic—or Your Life!

The wonderful thing about automatic negative thoughts is that they are indeed distortions. Just because we have learned to think something doesn’t make it true. We really, truly don’t have to let ANTs ruin our picnic (because who wants to have an ant-infested picnic in the summer time, or any other time of year?). Next week, I’ll give you some tips for keeping ANTs out of your picnic and filling your picnic basket with things that enhance your mental health and wellbeing.

Source: Burns, D.D. (1999). The Feeling Good Handbook. NY: Plume.

 

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