TO THRIVE: Words that describe and define the word “thrive” are words like prosper, flourish, to grow vigorously, blossom, advance, and succeed. Clearly, this idea of thriving is much more comprehensive than simply defining ourselves or our lives by one thing. Similarly, when we talk about mental health or wellness, we cannot limit ourselves to only the world of what’s going on in our heads. I encourage everyone to look beyond and take a comprehensive view of health. This is also the approach I take with my own patients, and it pays off!
Western medicine for decades has taken an approach of focusing on a specific injury or observable injured site. Interestingly, Eastern medicine has embraced a much wider philosophy. Whereas, in modern medicine if a patient reports chronic headaches, this leads to a series of brain scans to look for physical evidence of root causes. However, in older medicine practices, a patient reporting these symptoms leads to a long discussion of life, lifestyle, family, and stressors first. Mental health does not happen without physical health, and vice versa. Learning to be mentally healthy is about learning to think, feel, and behave in ways that lead to thriving, and this includes every part (i.e., organ system) of your body. Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas to uncover what they really mean.
THOUGHTS: This idea encapsulates everything going on in our heads whatever we want to call it… our beliefs, our attitudes, our automatic, habitual thoughts, the type of thought patterns we tend to have, our worldview, the way we interpret everything that goes on outside of us. Our thought-processing is the root cause of everything else that happens and is part of what becomes a cycle of feelings and behaviors that ultimately feed back into our thoughts. Some people have a tendency (for a variety of reasons including genetic and biological predisposition, history of mental illness, trauma, etc.) to think in highly negative ways, especially when under stress. Contrary to this, others tend to feel motivated with the right amount of stress, and do not necessarily default to negative thought settings. The good news is that thinking can be changed. The bad news is that it’s really hard to change thought patterns because they become habits, which means it takes honest, hard, work and dedication.
FEELINGS: This phenomenon also happens in our heads (despite our desire to believe it’s all happening in our hearts). Perhaps this is the reason we have to work so hard to change the way we think, i.e., from negative unhealthy thoughts to healthier, more helpful thoughts. Feelings drive us. We don’t typically know that we are upset until we feel a feeling and it lingers for a while. When emotions come and go quickly, we call them “natural” emotional responses. But, when emotions come and stick around, we call them “manufactured” emotional responses. What is manufacturing them? YOUR thoughts! Not someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, but YOUR thoughts. That’s a really important concept. And now you know that you can change your thoughts (with lots of practice). This means you can change your feelings. It takes time, and it’s not easy, especially for those of you who have entrenched negative ways of thinking. But it will be the best and most important investment of your life.
Note: If you’re interested in doing this work, then I would encourage you to seek professional help with a therapist who is well-versed in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. And this leads us to the third part of this equation.
BEHAVIORS: These include what we do, or do not do, in some cases. We are all responsible for our actions, and it’s helpful to understand that our actions are determined by our thoughts and feelings. When we engage in “stinkin’ thinkin’” we don’t feel good, and the combination of those habitual thoughts and our less pleasant emotions lead to behaviors that often do not represent us well. And behavior can include the actions you take, but often when anxiety is involved, it includes avoidance behaviors. These are equally important. Our behaviors, whatever they are, serve to reinforce our thoughts and feelings, and it can all become part of a vicious (or healthy) cycle.
This discussion of behaviors leads us to action. And thus we enter the world of self-care, which generally includes a lot of behaviors aimed at improving quality of life and achieving work-life balance. Let’s break down self-care into more specific categories so that we can target the lacking parts of our lives: psychological and emotional, spiritual, physical, professional, and personal. Exploring each of these categories of self-care can help us better identify what we are doing and also what we are neglecting.
Psychological self-care includes activities such as meditation, journaling, and introspection. Engaging in therapy and attending a support group (such as AA, a church group, or anything else you may need) are also ways of caring for ourselves psychologically. Pretty much anything that makes you “feel happier” can fall into the area of psychological self-care. Emotional self-care goes hand-in-hand with psychological self-care, and includes more internal activities such as positive self-affirmations, and practicing self-love and self-compassion. Emotionally healthy activities also include laughing as much as possible, enjoying pleasant activities, or doing nice things for yourself like curling up with your fur baby, buying yourself something nice, or spending time on your hobbies.
Often when people hear the word spiritual, they think religion. But spirituality is not necessarily the same thing as religion. Spirituality is about having a sense of there being something bigger than us, and a sense of connectedness with one another. Spirituality is about the human spirit, and how we value and find meaning in our lives. It manifests and is nurtured in solo or group activities like yoga, meditation, and spending time in nature. It also involves activities that foster compassion such as volunteering, charity, and random acts of kindness.
Physical self-care is probably one of the easier categories to start with if you realize you are neglecting yourself across the board. This category includes the basics of regular exercise, adequate sleep, healthy eating, and scheduling regular medical appointments. But it also includes fun activities like taking hot baths, getting massages, enjoying physical intimacy (cuddling, kissing, and sex), and taking more vacations. On a more serious note, it also means getting you (and your kids) physically out of a dangerous relationship and finding a safe house or staying with friends or family.
Many of us probably spend most of our time, energy, and focus on our careers or jobs. However, this does not necessarily mean that you are engaging in activities that qualify as professional self-care. This type of self-care includes learning how to set healthy and firm boundaries at work, taking lunch, not working overtime, taking sick days (and mental health days) when necessary, using all of your vacation days, participating in ongoing professional developing, asking for help at work if you need it, and learning new skills or going back to school.
After we explore these specific categories, we can take a step back to examine some bigger issues that fall into a general area of self-care, the personal one. This includes activities like setting short and long-term goals, making new friends, dating, learning a new language or musical instrument, and making financial goals. All of these activities allow us to learn more about ourselves and move towards work-life balance and a happier more fulfilling life. Try to think about all self-care as tools to becoming the best version of ourselves. Don’t worry about what has happened in the past, your shortcomings, or regrets. Face forward and mindfully enjoy your journey today, one moment at a time.