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House Call: Tools for maintaining good mental health

When we hear the phrase “mental health,” it’s likely most of us think of things like depression, suicide prevention or fighting the stigma associated with mental health conditions. I challenge you to think of good mental health as more than just the absence of mental health problems. Good mental health is a critical part of one’s overall health. The great news is that there is a set of mental tools that let you think, feel and act in ways that are beneficial to meeting the challenges and stressors we face in our lives. These tools also allow us to enjoy life fully in the moment when good and pleasant things transpire.

So what tools should we try to develop?

My top recommendation is to talk about your feelings. My wife will laugh at this, as I have a running joke that if she asks me about my feelings I tend to reply with something like, “I’m feeling hungry.” But honestly – talk with a friend, a loved one or someone else you trust. Maybe while out on a walk together, on the phone or over coffee. It’s amazing how burdensome our thoughts can be, but also how much lighter you can feel by just getting them out in the open.

I also recommend regular exercise. It improves your energy level and those endorphins aren’t bad either. I feel that outdoor exercise (now that our air has cleared) especially helps us boost our mental clarity and cope with stress. Reconnect with nature, even if it’s just a short walk to note how brightly the clouds are contrasting with the sky.

Try to look at food as fuel and medicine. I get it, there are so many delicious things available to eat but many aren’t particularly healthful. Just as with your car, bad fuel can foul the engine and make things run rough, rougher than they actually need to. Watch your portions and opt for more fruits and vegetables as well as proteins such as beans and fish. Make the sweets and other indulgences a treat only for special occasions. Like once a month or less.

Boost your self-esteem by doing something you’re good at. Failures in life are bound to happen, and it can be easy to slip into a mindset that you aren’t good at anything. Make a conscious effort to pause those defeating thoughts and to recall something you are good at doing. Set up some regularly occurring time to do “your thing” daily, weekly, or monthly; whatever you need to remind yourself that there are areas where you excel. Personally, I try to play the guitar a little bit every day. Remember, no one is good at everything, but we are all good at something. So accept who you are—what you are and are not—and learn to be content with yourself.

Don’t manage your feelings with alcohol or drugs. It can make you feel better temporarily, but the feelings are going to come back and likely be worse once the substance wears off. If you feel like you can’t manage your feelings and talking hasn’t helped, it’s probably time to move on to my next recommendation.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by life – speak up and ask a friend, family member, or coworker for assistance getting through a rough period. Maybe the feelings you are having are of a nature that you find difficult to talk about with people close to you. In this case, seeking counseling services through a therapist or a psychologist may be the right fit. Check with your health insurance carrier about the options available to you and how to access care from a professional who can help you.

Finally, take care of your family and friends when the opportunities arise. If you feel like someone is struggling, ask them if you can listen or help. Sometimes that’s all someone needs in order to open up. Caring for others brings us closer together and creates lasting bonds that both help us through the tough times and help us feel useful and needed.

Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.


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