Talking about mental health can be awkward. It shouldn’t be any harder to talk about than a sinus infection or toothache, but it is. So let’s work on changing that.
When you’re discussing mental health, the most important thing to remember is the keyword health. Health isn’t being able to run a half-marathon (that’s fitness, by the way) or having perfect muscle tone. Health is your body functioning like it’s supposed to.
And guess what? Your brain is a part of your body! In fact, it’s kind of a big deal. Issues tend to come up when we don’t include mental health in the picture of our overall health and look at it as a separate object that should be held to different standards.
Mental Self Care Is Not Self Indulgent, It’s Essential
Think about it this way: if you have a broken leg, you go to the hospital, right? When you have the flu, you hit up the doctor. That’s just taking care of yourself.
So why, if you’re having panic attacks, depressive episodes, or just feel generally overwhelmed, don’t you take care of yourself the same way?
Going to the doctor or seeing a counselor might not be the first-step you take when you’re experiencing a mental health issue. Sometimes, that’s not the answer anyway.
Not every mental health issue can be traced back to an anxiety disorder or something like that. Sometimes it’s just stress from working so hard. Sometimes you’re overwhelmed and can’t perform at work because of things happening in your personal life that keep piling up. And you know what? Sometimes, you’re just unhappy and don’t know why.
And you still have the right to take care of yourself. Because your body (which, again, includes your brain) is unhealthy in some way.
How Do I Fix An Unhealthy Brain?
Many of us just don’t know how to take care of ourselves when it comes to mental health. Goodness knows I didn’t until I started having panic attacks regularly and started seeing a counselor.
I learned that much like physical health, there are a lot of small, everyday things you can integrate into your life to really help alter the way you both feel and interact with the world.
Below are a few easy ones to get you started. You can of course modify or replace these things with activities you find more conducive to your personal mental health.
Do Something That Makes You Smile
I know. I know. This sounds hippy-dippy, hokey, and new-agey. But hear me out.
A big part of self care for your mental health is just perspective. You need to be doing things for yourself that no one else can do. They don’t have to be grand, sweeping gestures. You don’t have to buy yourself an Apple Watch, a PS4, or a 4K TV (though that is indeed a way to make yourself smile).
I smile when I pet my dog as I wake up and when I finish a good run.
Take a few seconds or minutes to do something that makes you giggle. Do what makes you smile. And make sure that you do it–or something like it–every single day. Your mood will brighten and your days will get just a little better because you took just a small sliver of the day to take care of yourself in a tiny (yet huge) way.
Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier changed my life. I was an English teacher for nearly a decade and this is the only book I’ve ever read I can say that about. Billed as “meditation for fidgety skeptics,” I thought to myself, “sure, I’ll bite” and listened to the audiobook.
He talked a lot about self care and figuring out what works for you. Since meditation worked for him and made him the titular ten-percent happier, I gave meditation a shot. And hey, meditation is backed by tons of science.
Beginning that meditation routine is the one bit of self care that I can trace every other positive change in my mental health back to.
Meditation (specifically mindfulness meditation) is just about being present when and where you are. Meditation as self care is interesting because you can do it anywhere, anytime. In line at the grocery store, when driving, or while you’re at your desk. Much of meditation is the discipline to start and the ability to focus, not chanting om a bunch.
You can repeat a mantra or a phrase (this happens to me while running–it’s meditative for me, and I find myself repeating “breathe in, 1, 2, 3, breathe out, 1, 2, 3” as a way to keep focus.) You can focus on a poster of a kitten telling you to “Hang in There” or on a blinking cursor in your bash shell. As long as you’re using that object as a way to bring in your attention to where you are and what you’re experiencing right then and there.
As you get used to focusing and breathing and just existing, you may find that you’ve acquired two new skills:
- How to respond and not react
- How to sit in discomfort.
What Does That Mean?
Sometimes we blow things out of proportion. We turn minor irks into major issues that can grow and expand to put us in a worse place. Enter sitting in discomfort.
Being annoyed and having a thousand little things come up is terrible, but those minor discomforts end. As the unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt says, a person can stand just about anything for ten seconds. And unless your toes are getting chopped off or another catastrophe is unfolding, meditation teaches you how to practice the self care skillset to deal with the situation.
When you can’t figure out why your linter isn’t finding that missing semicolon, or when your Windows 10 computer suddenly stops working and you have to reinstall Windows five times in two weeks before you eventually just throw your hands up in the air and install Ubuntu (ahem), you will remain composed.
You will respond to the situation (eventually installing Ubuntu on your computer) instead of reacting to it (taking a sledge hammer to it and going Office Space all over the place). And you will be able to identify and understand minor issues are not things that will destroy the planet and all life on it (sitting in discomfort).
Taking time for yourself and actively learning to regulate stress levels is pretty major self care.
Take Time Off
If you’re looking to improve your mental state, you should absolutely have designated work hours and whole days off.
A few years back, I started having panic episodes because of work email. I felt as though I was on-call for my job 24-hours a day. No matter where I was, I was compelled to answer promptly and get dragged into a long, intrusive email back-and-forth. It affected my life and mental health negatively.
So I removed the Gmail forwarder on my campus email. Once I stepped out of the office, those emails didn’t exist until the next day. I let my supervisors and my students know about it, and my stress levels started to diminish and my overall happiness and quality of life improved.
Same thing when I started freelancing, a friend told me to make sure to take weekends. Sure enough, when I stared at projects for 14-15 days in a row, my mental state and productivity diminished.
The takeaway is that your work is not your life. It’s super important. You have a lot of people depending on you. But the stress from those expectations can begin to wear at you and make your mental state deteriorate. Your happiness is also important. Being able to relax and disconnect will help you return to your favorite text editor refreshed and ready to code.
Between Slack and email and Twitter and texts and Facebook Messenger and…well, you know…it’s hard to disconnect.
Separate your emails and don’t check your work accounts on the weekends. If you freelance, let your clients know that you hold work hours and aren’t available for them outside of them. Let your bosses and supervisors know if you intend on doing this, of course. Different companies have different cultures and policies, but often, they will understand since you’re not trying to shirk responsibilities–you’re trying to take care of yourself.
You may be surprised by how much relief you will feel just knowing that the world outside can’t get in touch with you.
Take Vacation Days
In much the same way, I urge you to take your vacation days. You are very likely to earn time off at your job. Take it. Some companies may make it more difficult for you to find a way to get away, but it is definitely in your self interest to distance yourself from everything familiar every now and then
By taking your vacation time, you give your mind a kind of soft reset. You will come back refreshed and able to be even more productive. You don’t even have to go beyond your couch or back yard. Just remember git add, git commit, git push, git out of there.
Talk to Someone, Online or Off
Reach out to someone. You’re not alone. Other people can understand what you’re going through if you tell them. Verbalizing about what you’re going through is helpful in and of itself, not to mention the solidarity that comes if whomever you speak with opens up to you, as well.
You are not helping only yourself, but potentially someone else too. That is its own kind of self care.
Speaking about your mental state relieves pressure and stress, and honestly, when you are finally able to put what you’re feeling into words and get them out in the open, you will be able to spend a little less time focusing on it, which will help you move forward. And by doing it with someone else, you can get a new perspective on the issue that you would be incapable of seeing by yourself.
Seeking out a mental health professional like a counselor or psychiatrist (which is a hard to step to get to, admittedly) is very likely to help, but that’s not your only option to open up. You might open up to a friend, spouse, or family member. You might even want to reach out to a Twitter buddy. Whoever it is, talking to someone can help. A lot.
I am lucky enough to be a part of a North Alabama software developers Slack server, and one of the channels we have is #mental-health-public. We talk about what medicines work for us, and what strategies and everyday practices we use to keep our heads above water (like these I’ve mentioned here). What makes it truly special is that we’re all in tech fields like software development so we understand the specific stressors that our lifestyles present.
Just remember the self care advice from the old guy in the cave at the beginning of The Legend of Zelda: it’s dangerous to go alone.
Take Care Out There
Self care is not easy. But when you break it down, there are lots of strategies you can take that can improve both your physical and mental health. They don’t take a lot of energy, nor do they have to steal more than a few seconds from your day every now and then.
Over time, though, those seconds add up to minutes and hours and months and years. And in the long run, you’ll have set up multiple self care habits that you won’t even think of as self care anymore. They will just be how you live your life.
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