One of the most positive things to come from the past few years: mental health is at the forefront of the cultural conversation. All of us, no matter our background or circumstances, came face to face with our mental health — particularly in lockdown and at the height of the pandemic.
But we have ups and downs, struggles and triumphs, regardless of the state of the world. It’s now relatively common knowledge that over 30 percent (!!) of Americans will deal with anxiety disorders in some form at some point in their lives. One in five US adults experience a mental illness each year — and you don’t have to have a diagnosed mental illness to go through a mental health struggle. According to the CDC, over 50 percent of us will experience a mental health illness or disorder in our lifetime. Whether it’s a season of intense stress or a severe illness, it affects nearly all of us.
Because our bodies and minds are intertwined, our physical health is impacted by our mental health (and vice versa!). To live our healthiest, happiest lives, it’s imperative that we check in with our brains and our emotional wellbeing.
Signs That You Need to Prioritize Your Mental Health
Your body has a way of giving you some “check engine lights,” so to speak — ways of letting you know that things aren’t operating as they normally should, and you need to pivot.
Clinical psychologist Forrest Talley, Ph.D., founder of Invictus Psychological Services explains that this is similar to how NASA operates. “Anyone who has ever listened to the NASA radio chatter that occurs when a spaceship is about to launch has heard the constant back and forth between the control tower and pilots,” says Dr. Talley. “They verify that various systems are online, or that they are operational” and good to go.”
“It would be foolish for them to assume that just because there have been numerous successful launches in the past that everything will be functioning as it should this time as well,” continues Dr. Talley. “By double-checking the state of essential systems, they not only help guarantee a successful mission but also reduce the risk of having a catastrophic failure.”
So what does this mean for mental health? “There is a lesson in this approach that should be adopted by each of us,” he says. “Namely, it is important to periodically ‘check in’ on how our ‘essential systems’ are functioning. One of these systems is your mental health.”
6 Ways to Check-in on Your Mental Health
“Mental health is most impacted by your relationships, moods, thoughts, behaviors, physical health, and for many, faith-based practices,” explains Dr. Talley. Ahead, his top suggestions for your mental health checklist. The best part? The entire list can be completed in about 10 minutes (or less), and you only need to do it once every few weeks or once a month.
“To make the most of this checklist, keep a journal of your findings, and then put plans in place,” he suggests. “If there are several areas you need to work on, prioritize them and work only on the top priority. Once you’ve made progress in one area, follow up on the others.”
#1 Check on Your Relationships
Dr. Talley’s questions for your friend, family, colleague, and romantic relationships: “Are my closest relationships moving forward the way I would like? Has friction risen up in one or more of them and if so do I need to put effort into resolving the source of that friction? Have I been paying enough attention to those with whom I am closest?” Make mental notes of these, and evaluate how these relationship metrics are impacting your current state.
#2 Grade Your Mood
Ask yourself the following, Dr. Talley says: “How would I rate my average mood throughout the past week (or two weeks)? If it is better than usual what is the reason and can I capitalize on that in the future (keep the good times rolling)? If my mood has taken a dip, is there a reason I can pinpoint, and if so what can I do about it?” If you feel as though your mood hasn’t been good for a while, then stress, anxiety, or even depression could be a culprit. Take note!
#3 Visit Your Thoughts
What has your mental dialogue consisted of lately? “[Ask yourself,] ‘Are my thoughts primarily positive, moving me forward in life, focused on gratitude and opportunities, or are they negative, holding me back, and filled with regret, envy, and anger?’ If they are negative, then it’s time to put in a significant effort to refocus on the positive,” says Dr. Talley.
#4 Take Inventory of Your Habits and Behaviors
“Are your behaviors in line with your priorities, values, and future goals?” asks Dr. Talley. He gives one example you may relate to: you want to be lean and fit, perhaps compete in a triathlon, or maybe even reach a big weight loss goal. “But, you come home at night, crack open a beer, eat a pizza, and watch reruns of Friends [we’ve been there!].” In this instance, he says, your behaviors are not aligned with your goals — and this can be indicative of a mental health hiccup. “It’s time to change your goals, or change your behaviors,” he says. “No excuses, get crackalackin.” This is also true if you usually adhere to a routine, and recently you’ve been ‘off.’ Consider this a check engine light!
#5 Review Your Physical Health
“Is your health great? Not average, not passable, but terrific?” asks Dr. Talley. “Poor health diminishes mental acuity and can lead to depression,” he says. These things go hand in hand — poor physical health can lead to poor mental health, and poor mental health can lead to poor physical health (a real the-chicken-or-the-egg conundrum). “Have you been neglecting some nagging medical issues because ‘there just isn’t time’?” he asks. “Don’t procrastinate; consult with your doc, and get things sorted out.” Some metrics to check on: digestion, energy levels, skin, headaches, sleep, teeth grinding/jaw clenching, aches, and pains.
#6 Connect With Your Spiritual Side
Dr. Talley explains that faith and spirituality play major roles in mental and emotional wellbeing. What is your spiritual practice? “Do you have strong faith-based beliefs, but you’ve shoved to the side any attempts at putting them into action?” asks Dr. Talley. “This will eventually wear on your mental health. If it is church/temple attendance, get started. Do your faith beliefs involve helping the less fortunate? Make a plan and execute. Don’t put it off, just tackle one small step. That will lead to the momentum to do more.”
Be Proactive: Make Good Mental Health a Lifestyle
Like Dr. Talley said, take this one step at a time. And don’t wait until you feel terrible — the best way to take care of your mind is to be proactive with your mental health by shaping your lifestyle around your wellness goals.
Prioritizing sleep, nutrition, exercise, therapy, your personal spiritual practice, time with loved ones, and regular physician checkups not only support your overall health but ensure that your mind has the best capability of managing life’s tougher seasons. If you follow this advice, Dr. Talley says, “Within a short period of time, your mental state will undergo a remarkable change.”