FEATURE — In a nutshell, we’ll say that “mental health” is a state of mind that allows us to cope with the endless challenges life throws at us.
In the first two articles of the “Mind Matters” series, we proposed an assessment of your mental health as well as some common signs of mental health disorders. In this article, we look at how mental health can be supported by protective factors or eroded by risk factors. The real challenge lies in maintaining balance between the two.
Let’s consider what challenges life throws at us.
They could be something as extreme as a sudden encounter with a bear or just the normal anticipation we feel before an exam. Maybe it’s something physical, like a cough that just won’t quit, or something social, like arguing with a friend or feeling left out at school. It could be the stress that accompanies an all-consuming to-do list or that student loan debt we carry in the back of our mind.
Think of these challenges as rungs on a ladder: Some of us have a 6-foot ladder, and it takes several life-challenges before we’re at the top with nowhere else to go. Others have a two-rung step stool, and a broken nail or spilled cup of coffee can ruin their whole day. It’s important to keep in mind that we never truly know how tall someone’s ladder is and what rung they’re on.
Most of us agree life rarely goes as planned. Challenges will affect us throughout our lives but it’s how we choose to deal with these challenges that marks us. Our resiliency, our ability to bounce back, when challenges occur is one of the things that affects our mental health.
Things that tend to shape our mental health are called protective factors and risk factors.
Protective factors may include things like a supportive family, good self-esteem and healthy friendships. These tend to support us, making it more likely we will stay on track and maintain positive mental health.
Risk factors, on the other hand, may include things like chronic illness, low self-esteem, poor relationships and financial stress. These have the opposite effect on us, highlighting the negatives in our lives and making it more likely that we’ll experience a decline in positive mental health.
The good news is that protective factors can offset the effects of risk factors. Studies show that protective factors introduced in early years can help shape positive mental health throughout a person’s lifespan. Most of us are no longer in our “early years” but it’s never too late to seek out protective factors in our lives. but where do we start?
Mental Health America offers the following suggestions in regards to steps each of us can take to develop our protective factors in our journey to attain – or maintain – mental health:
- Connect with others.
Humans, by nature, are social creatures – who doesn’t want to feel supported or valued, especially during hard times? Even if you who have social anxiety, you can try to find someone you can connect with. One tip would be to make a physical list of individuals you want to stay connected with and make the effort to contact them regularly. Go for a walk with a friend or discover new places to explore.
- Stay positive.
Developing a sense of gratitude is one example of how to stay positive. Keep a gratitude journal and be sure to write in it every day.
- Be physically active.
Exercise can help lower stress, depression and anxiety. Even a leisurely walk around the block a few times a week can do wonders for your mental health. If nothing else, your body will be happy for the vitamin D.
- Help others.
Volunteering can not only help you gain a new sense of perspective in life, it can also help you feel needed and give you a sense of purpose. Volunteering can also introduce you to new and potentially like-minded friends.
- Get enough sleep.
Getting enough rest helps you combat some of the stresses in life. But, sadly, stresses can steal your sleep, which can contribute to a decline in your mental health. To boost your sleep, don’t use any technology right before or in bed, keep a regular bedtime and try to de-stress by listening to soothing music or taking a relaxing bath.
- Create joy and satisfaction.
Audrey Hepburn said, “I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” So slow down, find something fun to do, watch funny cat videos on YouTube, whatever. Find something that brings you joy or just makes you laugh.
- Eat well.
When we are stressed, we tend to eat more of the unhealthy items. An occasional doughnut or candy bar isn’t a bad thing, but a lot of it can lead to an energy crash when we may need energy the most. Be sure to have a balanced diet filled with fruits and veggies.
Check out the Mental Health America website for more information as well as more suggestions including, of course, seeking out mental health professionals if needed.
As the Mind Matters series continues, we will highlight several Southern Utah mental health providers and organizations, as well as success stories, but if you or someone you know is seeking help or resources now, go to the following websites:
- Intermountain Healthcare St. George psychiatry and counseling.
- Dixie Regional Behavioral Medicine Unit.
- Cedar City mental health provider list.
If you or someone you know needs helps immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911. There is help and hope available.
Written by HEIDI BAXLEY, Iron County Prevention Coalition coordinator, and LAUREN MCAFEE, Cedar City Library in the Park grant and development officer.
About the “Mind Matters” Series
St. George News “Mind Matters” series aims to illuminate how mental illnesses affect society and how to maintain mental health. Articles are contributed by Cedar City Library in the Park in partnership with the Iron County Prevention Coalition and will highlight available resources people may access in Southern Utah and online.
Read more: All the articles in the Mind Matters series
Email: [email protected]
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