Sustaining mental health: a fine balance

On World Mental Health Day, let’s take a moment to look at our own mental health. When are you mentally healthy? The answer is simple: when you feel balanced and ready to cope with life’s challenges. But how to find that balance? That answer is not so simple.

Life can be fun, fulfilling, exciting, even exhilarating.  But for most of us mere mortals it can also be complicated, tough, scary and sometimes depressing. There’s so much going on, so much to manage. You have family with all its intricate relationships and group dynamics. You might lack a family. You have relationships with friends, lovers, colleagues, bosses, employees, teachers, students, public servants, shopkeepers. People are born. People die. The stream of people in and out of our lives is constant.

You have to make money, enough to feed yourself, clothe yourself, pay for a home and furnish it. You might be supporting someone else. You work, you go to school, you shop, you plan, you don’t plan, you stress, you relax, you go on vacation, you write emails, you pay your bills, you avoid paying your bills, you eat, you clean yourself, you make friends, you argue with people, you try to get along – the list goes on.

At some point, you worry about all of these things. You might worry a bit, you might worry a lot. And you have all sorts of thoughts and feelings about it all. Some thoughts are fleeting. Some keep churning in your mind and seem impossible to shut down.

It’s a minor miracle that most of us get through the day relatively unscathed! To not get overwhelmed by it all, to deal with our challenges in a healthy way, we need balance, a way that allows us to cope with all these complicated interactions, relationships, thoughts, feelings and activities. But how to find this balance? What are some of the most important steps we can take?

To start with, we can keep our bodies as healthy as possible. We can’t control which genes we have and what diseases might come our way, but we can do our best to equip our bodies with some basic health boosters that enhance both physical and mental health:

  1. Sleep. Get enough of it. For some this is six hours, for others nine. You need more than adrenaline and caffeine to make it through the day. You need sleep to stay sane and healthy. It is the most important act of our day. New parents can go a while without it, but eventually they too need their Zzz’s. But keep in mind that it’s possible to get too much of a good thing: sleeping more than nine hours a day can have a variety of negative medical consequences.
  2. Exercise. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all before, you need to exercise. Thirty minutes a day of exercise has a positive effect on every single aspect of your life. Every single health issue you can think of, both physical and mental, will benefit.
  3. Nourish your body and mind. Drink plenty of water and have a balanced, colorful diet. Dehydration and a diet of junk will cost your body loads of energy, and possibly damage it. Keep alcohol to a minimum.
  4. Connect with people. We are social beings. This means all of us, even the introverts. We need people to talk to, share experiences with, rely on, laugh with, cry with, give support to and get support from. We need to connect. Connection nourishes.
  5. Breathe. Take one minute each day to be in room, by yourself, to close your eyes and focus on your breathing. If you enjoy this, increase the amount slowly until you are at ten minutes a day. This type of meditation will increase your happiness and physical wellbeing.

The list above is relatively straightforward, but what if you can’t manage to keep to it, because you’re too overwhelmed? Are your thoughts and feelings distracting you from your daily life? Do you constantly feel tired or have physical complaints that seem to have no medical cause? Do you feel stressed, panicky, forgetful, depressed or overly agitated? Do you cry often for no apparent reason or for too many reasons? Are you worrying about things to the point where it’s doing more harm than good? Are you abusing alcohol or other substances?

Well, you’re not alone. With all life’s overwhelming tasks, responsibilities, relationships and occurrences, coping with it all, on your own, can be daunting for anyone. Some people simply face more struggle than others. Some have learned with time to interpret their lives in a negative way.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. For as long as you can remember, your good friend has sent you a Christmas card. This year, she doesn’t send one. What do you automatically think?

a)      She probably forgot, she’s been so busy lately.

b)      She must not like me anymore, what did I do wrong?

If you’re someone who would typically interpret such a situation as b) than you have probably learned to have automatic negative thoughts. If you recognize yourself in this, take a moment to think about how this is affecting your daily life and your outlook on the future. How is it affecting your mental health?

What it comes down to is that keeping a sense of balance, a sense of mental health, is a challenge for almost all of us. Know that you’re not the only one who faces this type of struggle. Take comfort in that. If you feel like you’re not coping the way you would like to cope, talk to someone: a friend, a family member, a counselor, a spiritual guide, an online community member – whatever feels right for you. Taking action is the first step towards finding balance.


This article has also appeared on Amsterdam Mamas.