Taking care of your psychological health

As members of a community we are generally not aware that we need to take care of our psychological health, it’s no surprise then that we do not pay much attention to it. Who could blame us, we were not really taught how to. This isn’t the case however when it comes to our physical bodies. From a young age we are taught to brush our teeth twice a day, to eat well and to take care of ourselves when we are ill. We make sure our children know what needs to happen if they fall and sprain their ankle, and we, as parents would not hesitate to get them to a doctor to get treatment in such situations. But how much time do we really spend teaching our kids about coping in the aftermaths of failure, of loss, of rejection? Do we teach our children about taking care of their psychological injuries? Why is this?

We are raised to pay more attention to physical injuries than to psychological ones.

Though studies indicate that people who are more attuned to their psychological well-being are more emotionally intelligent and tend to be successful in various aspects of their lives. A psychological injury, like a physical one needs care. In most cases the wound needs to be treated in order to heal and for us to move on with our lives. We probably would never say to someone with a broken leg to “just walk it off” yet our response to someone struggling with depression or anxiety is to “snap out of it”, or “just be strong”. Isn’t this surprising considering that our psychological health impacts our quality of life just as much as our physical health does. So how can we go about taking care of our psychological wellbeing? Here are three simple ways:

Learn how to identify your emotions

We have all been in situations where we have felt angry, irritable, or frustrated. As a therapist, I often encounter adult clients who struggle to put a label to how they are feeling. They may even behave in a way that is inconsistent with their true emotion, for example a husband who lashes out at his wife when he is hurt. When you are able to identify what emotion you are experiencing, you can then process it and move on. It can be extremely difficult to do, more so because we live in a world that resists emotion. We are taught (even though unintentionally) to suppress anger, sadness or pain so we grow up to be adults who find it easier to numb our negative feelings rather than deal with them. We numb in various ways; by eating our feelings away, by over-spending, or in the form of addiction to substances.

It can be unpleasant to feel the negative feelings. However, what we do not realise is that we cannot selectively numb emotions- when we numb the bad stuff, we numb all the positive emotions too. This isn’t a life that any of us want to lead. By learning how to identify our emotions and accepting how we are feeling we can go from being numb and lacking direction to being able to make sense of our actions and reactions.

Identifying our emotions gives us a sense of presence in the moment and prevents us from feeling overwhelmed by the emotion.

Learning to identify your emotions can be a difficult exercise initially, but with practice it will become easier. The next time you are feeling angry/hurt/disappointed, take a moment before reacting to ask yourself; what am I feeling? What is making me feel this way?

Practice non-judgemental acceptance

Feelings aren’t bad or good, they just are. You are not a bad person for feeling a certain way, it just makes you human and feeling that emotion is part of being human. As human beings we experience various emotions at any given time. It is what we do with those emotions that matters. This is what ‘non-judgemental acceptance’ is all about, allowing yourself to feel the emotion and also realising that it does not define you. You have the power to choose how to react to the emotion.

I admit, it can be easier at times to just deny what we are feeling, especially if the emotion is anger or guilt. Still, denying your emotions does not necessarily make them go away- they may resurface in other ways. The healthier alternative is to acknowledge and accept when you are feeling a certain emotion, be it grief, sadness, or anxiety. We need to practice how to accept our emotions but not the judgemental thoughts behind them. We tend to draw conclusions based on how we feel, for example “I feel like I need a break from my kids, therefore I must be a bad mother”.  It is okay to feel a specific emotion without putting a label on yourself. In my work I have found the most common reason people avoid acknowledging and accepting their emotions is the fear of feeling overwhelmed by them. However, the opposite is true. By allowing ourselves to fully experience our emotions, we are able to make sense of how we truly think and feel and then we can behave according to our needs. When we feel all of our emotions (even those we deem to be unacceptable) we are less likely to act upon them in destructive ways. It is only through non-judgemental acceptance where this is possible.

Pay attention to your inner monologue

What do you say to yourself after something disappointing happens? For example, that job interview that didn’t go well? Chances are, you lean more towards critical or harsh thinking. We all engage in self-criticism at some point or another. We are already in a vulnerable position after life throws us a few curve balls, yet we injure ourselves even further with critical thoughts. Consider what you would say to a close friend that you really cared about if they expressed their feelings after a bad interview, and address those same thoughts to yourself.

By practicing self-compassion and understanding, we do wonders for our overall psychological well-being.

Taking care of your psychological health is a skill that can be learned at any age and it is something that we can teach our kids too. None of us are born knowing how to do this, like most things in our lives, it is something that we learn. That being said, if you were not taught how to do this you can still acquire the skill, no matter your age. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and so much to gain. 

References

Firestone, L. (2016/01/25). Should You Feel or Flee Your Emotions? Why You Shouldn’t Shy Away From Your Feelings [Psychology Today Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201601/should-you-feel-or-flee-your-emotions

Parker, T. (2016/09/28). 6 Steps to Mindfully Deal With Difficult Emotions [Gottman Institute Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/6stepstomindfullydealwithdifficultemotions/