In a previous article, we looked at the definition of mental health and how it is more than the absence of a psychiatric disorder. Mental health covers your lifestyle and how well you can achieve the balance required for you to function optimally. So how can you maintain good mental health in order for you to achieve that balance?
The following are steps that I’d recommend when dealing with problems and maintaining good mental health. I’ll try to be as brief as possible.
Identify the symptoms associated with stress
It’s important for you to identify the symptoms that are associated with stress or mental strain if you want to maintain good mental health. As indicated in my previous article, the physical symptoms include;
- Wasting away
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive and rapid weight gain/loss due to stress-eating or loss of appetite
- Stiff muscles and pain in the neck, shoulders and upper back
- Poor physical performance of daily living activities due to low energy levels and morale
- Erectile dysfunction in men or a loss of sexual appetite in women
- Persistent stomach upsets, high blood pressure and heart palpitations and dark rings around the eyes.
Mentally some will exhibit attributes such as;
- Depression, withdrawal and recluse behavior
- Fits of rage that just pop up out of nowhere
- Absent-mindedness for long and intermittent periods or mental drifting as I like to call it sometimes
- Hallucinations in severe cases
- Addiction on whatever provides a temporary escape from reality like pornography, video games, work, weed (that’s marijuana for those of you saints), alcohol etc.
Once these have been identified and cannot be attributed to any other cause then it would be a great idea to consider getting professional help. It might also help if you could identify and eliminate obvious and avoidable stressors.
Find someone to talk to
The second step that I’d recommend is something I derive from an old Zulu ideology that says “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which means a person is only a person through other people, often hear a shorter version of this as “Ubuntu”. Humans are social and interactive beings and whether or not we’d like to admit it we actually thrive on social interaction. It is one way of venting out so find someone to talk to, preferably a therapist.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about the time he went for therapy at a mental health institution Chainama. He was shocked and later became mildly depressed by the behaviour of his workmates when he told them that he had gone for therapy.
There’s still a lot of stigma associated with someone seeking therapy or professional help from a psychologist. And the way people behave when confronted about it, just shows how primitive and afraid they are when it comes to talking about mental health. It also shows how it affects them. For the sake of good mental health, find someone that you trust understands you and will not judge you. Seek advice from the right people and if you can, seek professional help.
Acknowledge and accept that you are affected. There’s absolutely no shame in it. Reaching a state of self-awareness and acceptance culminates in a realization of one’s strengths and weaknesses and enables us to master ourselves.
Exercise and a healthy diet with adequate hydration
Don’t just do it when you’re feeling stressed out or mentally fatigued but rather make it a habit. It is beneficial and actually biblical. It has been proven scientifically that a good diet and regular exercise contributes immensely to good mental health.
Compartmentalize your mind
Another step is compartmentalization as it helps you understand your mind and emotions better. Some will call it a defence mechanism. While some hilariously call it an ability that one either learns or is born with. Now, I’m kind of caught in the middle on this subject and that’s because this has both positive as well as negative effects.
While it is good to compartmentalize it should be noted that the long term effects of this commonly utilized mode of mental defence and what it can morph into can have devastating effects. People who do stressful but necessary work NEED to create mental partitions in their minds because they have to separate work from other aspects of their lives.
I’ve known surgeons, nurses and paramedics who couldn’t eat meat after witnessing graphic scenarios at work and the only time they could move forward was after they learned to create mental partitions in their minds. People in the defence forces who are deployed into battlefields to fight wars or on peace-keeping missions usually see some gruesome images. And are exposed to situations that demand them to be totally different people.
But when they return to their homes, they have children, wives and husbands and or loved ones that they live with… in that set up they must be different people again. An ability to compartmentalize in this context is very helpful because work is left in one mental partition and closed shut, the compartment of home and family is then opened.
There are many other professions out there that are necessary and yet stressful like firefighters, police officers, paramedics, accountants of busy firms. What compartmentalization does for these people is create a temporary escape from whatever strains their mind.
One of the things I don’t dispute about men and women which I’m sure you’ll all agree with me unless of course, you’re a woman, is that only a handful of men can multitask, and I mean a handful. Men mostly adopt a functional approach when dealing with issues. Whether we’re arranging furniture in the house, packing clothes in our closet or packing stuff in the fridge… we tend to do it in a functional, organized and sequential manner one step at a time and when we’re doing that we cannot do anything else until that is done.
Ladies, when he’s cleaning the car, DO NOT ASK HIM to do something else for you… wait until he’s done unless you’re prepared to remind him again and again. Our minds function in a similar manner. Stuff in a man’s mind is arranged in an orderly, functional and systematic manner. In separate mental compartments or boxes.
And there’s one principle that governs this order and it is that these mental compartments don’t mix. We mentally open one box, deal with whatever we have to deal with there and we close that box and then open another one. There are boxes for every aspect of our lives. A box for work, in-laws, the wife, the …girlfriend, the kids, the car, the house, the money (the biggest box that’s usually empty), church, clothes etc.
Additionally, I mentioned earlier that blocking certain elements of reality from awareness has disadvantages. I tend to lock away issues in my own little boxes like the emotional strain of working from a different province keeps me away from my kids. I still have to be at my best when attending to my patients so I leave that part of my life in another box and this helps us to navigate through our day to day lives.
Some people have mental compartments of fantasy where they go and become what they want to or do what they want to do. Sometimes these mental partitions can lead to an escape that causes an individual to act out an activity that they eventually develop an affinity for. This act eventually replaces other aspects of our lives because it starts to feel good to escape to. And without realizing it we spend more and more time in those boxes and whenever we do so we build walls to secure those mental partitions.
Some of these acts are not exactly normal but as long as it feels good the brain is tricked into believing that it is justified. This always comes at a cost to self and more often culminates into addiction, the secret life of sin, self-isolation and distancing from family and loved ones. This compromises one’s own spirituality and when those mental partitions start to overflow because you’re not actually dealing with the root of the problem, those boxes might not touch but they’ll eventually crack and the stuff inside them will mix and voila – a mental breakdown.
Say no to mental health stigma
Finally, society tends to belittle the relevance or be it the pertinence of maintaining a state of sustained mental health. In the same way, they belittle the importance of a psychologist in any institution. I don’t think that there are any institutions in my country that have an in-house psychotherapist. Or can pay for you to see a therapist; even though the evidence of the lack of mental health is staring at us right in the face.
Adjustments that address this gap need to be made. And a conducive environment that does not stigmatize but facilitates a well-articulated head-on confrontation of mental health in all its entirety.
When we say no to stigma in society, even cases of self-stigma will reduce and people will access the help they need.
Click here for more tips on how to care for your mental health as a woman.