Untangled

The definition of mental health is simply this: a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.

What is not so simple is the complex and intricate ways our psychological and emotional well-being get out of balance.

When I started on my personal growth journey, I wasn’t thinking about my mental health. I was thinking about my heartbreak, my derailed dreams and my utter exhaustion. After slogging through a lot of self-help books and meditation magazines, I began to understand mental health in a new light. We contribute to each other’s mental health in our daily interactions and responses. Poor emotional regulation, lack of self awareness and old habitual patterns can suck us into a complex web of familiar but dysfunctional chain reactions. I began to realize the interconnection of members of my blended family and how we were inadvertently triggering each other’s most vulnerable emotional memories.

I could see how my own unconscious behavioral patterns and resulting coping mechanisms were in fact affecting my mental health. As I overlaid how members of my family were also operating unconsciously, what came to mind was the image of intricate, delicate necklaces all twisted and knotted together. Untangling all of this was going to take a committed effort — and it had to start with me. Our mental health was at stake — and it was affecting everyone’s quality of life.

I had plenty of evidence that my anxiety level was high. Stress was running the show and running me ragged. I was now a chronic ruminator, prone to stress eating, had trouble sleeping and was becoming forgetful. I credit my long-time fascination with neuroscience for preventing me from going into denial about the connection between stress overload and old behavioral habits feeding the cycle. I stumbled onto Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D and his teachings on the neuroscience of happiness.

I began learning about rewiring the brain to break the anxiety cycle and create new neural pathways. I discovered that strong emotional intelligence — the conscious ability to regulate our emotions — contributes to better psychological health and lessens the risk of anxiety disorders and depression.

At the same time, I was also absorbing what Brene Brown was uncovering about shame, vulnerability and our need for true belonging. Her research revealed all the things we do to avoid revealing our imperfections — and how debilitating those things are to living a wholehearted life.

Numbing anxieties is not the solution. The point that Brene Brown makes that when you numb pain, you also numb joy was very evident in my personal life. I felt my joy draining from me like the battery on my iPhone when I was in high stress situations. We can numb pain with food, drugs, alcohol, work, suppression and avoidance. None of these choices will solve the root problem. And when we numb joy, we lose sight of the blessings in our lives, the love and support that is already present. Joy provides balance and ballast for our lives.

I have lived with family members who had very poor coping skills and tried numbing to ease their pain. It ultimately led to dysfunction in their day to day lives, illnesses and addictions. Not only did they suffer greatly both emotionally and physically, there was a lot of collateral damage to others whom they interacted with at home, work and even play.

Failure to address and manage our stress will only amplify anxieties and insecurities. It clouds our thinking, distorts reality and creates confusion. Ignoring our emotions and over-reacting to our emotions deteriorates our mental health and impacts our physical health. As Brene teaches, we armor up. In doing so, we just keep adding to our growing iceberg of our core issues. You’ve probably heard that saying “the body keeps the score.” Chronic and life-threatening health issues can develop due to stress overloads.

Here again I had personal experience — extended periods of high stress in my life were the precursors of breast cancer at age 40 and then 18 years later the sudden development of lymphedema in my right arm.

I began to clearly see the big picture and understand the direct correlation between physical health, mental health and overall quality of life. Focusing on getting to the healthy end of the mental health spectrum became a top priority for me. It was neuroscience and rewiring the brain that created the framework for my personal mental health improvement plan.

All mental activity — your thoughts and feelings, joys and sorrows –require neural activity. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Repeated patterns of mental activity require repeated patterns of brain activity. Repeated patterns of brain activity change neural structure and function. You can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind…..to benefit yourself and others. — Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D, Author of The Neuroscience of Lasting Happiness.

The infrastructure I built inside that neuroscience framework consisted of mindfulness to expand my awareness of my behavioral patterns; meditation practice to help me recognize and stop the patterns in their tracks; meditation practice to learn how to let go of racing thoughts, rumination loops, and attachment to strong emotions. I supported my mental health goals with a lot of reading, journaling and deep vulnerable conversations with my trust buddy, Judy.

Brene Brown calls friends that you can confide in with complete honesty and trust “marble jar friends”. You only need one or two of these deeply rooted friends to help you gain traction in personal growth work. They are life jackets and air bags for all of life’s turbulence.

Brene Brown’s grounded research reveals how we have similar behavioral patterns and how/why we developed them. Dr. Rick Hanson teaches us how to retrain our brains to let go of those old patterns and replace them with more beneficial responses. Behavioral science and neuroscience come together to help us diagnose the problems and then heal them.

I took myself out of the entanglement. I acknowledged to myself what was tripping me up. I asked my family to help support my efforts and I held myself accountable for needed change. I blogged about my experiences, the trial and error and the discoveries.

The greatest gift is being a much improved resource for my family and friends now. I was not able to do that in a meaningful way five years ago and I wasn’t even aware of it. The more I learn about myself, the more I am able to discern when others are in struggle. My empathy, acceptance and non-judgment of others has grown exponentially as a direct result of doing my own work.

I am grateful that there is a dedicated collective effort taking place to de-stigmatize mental health. It is a collective problem — we truly are impacting each other’s mental health in how we show up in life. If we continue to drag around unprocessed emotions and trauma, to numb or hide it, we will not break the cycle of impairment. Taking care of our mental health is as fundamental as taking care of our physical health.

We can become advocates of our own mental health just as we are for our physical health. We can also help advance the cause to destigmatize mental health. Mental health is not an “either or” proposition — you are either mentally healthy or you are not — is totally inaccurate. We are all on the spectrum of mental health, just as we are with our physical health. As events and circumstances in our lives change, so does our mental and physical health.

I started on my personal growth journey because I wanted to be “at my best” for whatever the future held for me. At the time, I envisioned grandchildren, milestones and health issues — the good and the bad. I naively thought that “at my best” meant being physically strong and well-rested, no drama and a positive attitude. I was blind to how my past was impacting my mental health and how I was unconsciously reacting to myself and others. I certainly was unaware of how interconnected we all are with regard to mental health. We can do a better job of taking care of each other.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Greater Good Science Center, Berkley, CA – Four Things to do Everyday for your Mental Health https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_things_to_do_every_day_for_your_mental_health

Trauma experiences leave traces on minds, emotions and biology. Sadly, trauma sufferers frequently pass on their stress to partners and children. — Bessel van der Kolk, MD

https://www.rickhanson.net

Dr. Martin Seligman: Check out this interview:

https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/positive-psychology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s