Understanding & Maintaining Your Mental Health & Wellbeing: Part I
I was talking with a mate the other day, successful guy, wife and family, high-flying career and by any measure living the dream. For sure. But as the story too often goes, it came to a point where he realised it kinda just wasn’t working. Nothing really happened, except that slow, dawning realisation. And he called me up and we chatted through some of the basics about mental health and wellbeing and it reminded me that there are a whole lot of people out there who for whatever reason haven’t ever had the opportunity to think through the basics of how to maintain a positive state of personal psychology. So I sent my mate an email sharing some of the basics that I regularly teach and talk through, and I thought I’d offer that up for wider consumption in the hopes of a healthier and happier world.
So here are the basics of how I think about understanding mental health and how to look after our own wellbeing. Part one deals with recognising where we’re at in terms of our own mental health, or possibly recognising the mental health state of others we care about. The next post in part two looks at the things we can do to ensure we recover well, stay healthy, and build better and better tools for a more wholesome and vibrant life.
Part 1: The Mental Health Continuum.
We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. We all know that our physical health isn’t fixed, it can fluctuate up and down depending on what’s going on in our lives; we get fit and strong when we train and lift consistently, and we inevitably get fat when we plonk ourselves on the couch for too long or over-eat too frequently.
I find taking a physical training analogy helpful in understanding how this all relates to our mental health. So let’s say we’re feeling good and working hard in our training (in the green zone), and at the end of a tough training session we’re feeling puffed and sore. Great. That’s normal. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s the body telling us it’s time to rest and recover so we can go hard again next time we train (we’re now in the yellow zone). This is the essential process for how we adapt to higher and higher stress loads - overload and recovery - and we need this in our lives to get better at anything.
But let’s say we ignore that signal to stop and recover. Let’s say we keep on pushing hard, beyond what we’re ready for or what we can tolerate at that time in our lives. Now we may end up tweaking a hamstring, or a shoulder, or ending up with some other type of niggle or injury (the orange zone). And that’s a pretty clear signal that it’s time to really stop and take some extended time to heal and recover. And now’s probably also the time for us to reflect and review how we got here, how did we get this niggle or injury in the first place? Was it how we’re training? Too much volume too fast? Or maybe we weren’t balancing our exertion work with our mobility and recovery work. At this point we might also need to see a physio, and it’ll probably take a steady, slow recovery path back to full strength.
But let’s say we still don’t stop here, we ignore the body telling us we need to review our training strategies, we just keep on pushing. Now what happens? Well, what I so often see is we end up with some kind of serious physical setback, and the recovery time is going to take much, much longer. This is the situation where we are off training for a while, months, we’re on the bench, and we’ve got something that might require an extended rehab period, maybe even a surgery, to help us fix what’s gone wrong.
As it is true for our physical health, so it is true for our mental health. We can use this continuum idea to demonstrate the changeable nature of mental health depending on the context and our circumstances:
Some key points with this model to keep in mind.
Green zone functioning and yellow zone functioning are both considered pretty normal. We all get tired after a busy and demanding work week. You might even get a little short with your colleagues or your family at times, and that’s just the way it can go, that’s normal behaviour. So we take a weekend to recover, rest and relax, and come out of the yellow and back into the green zone ready for Monday, all fine and healthy and nothing to be concerned about. What’s important is when we start to recognise we’re spending a bit too long in the yellow zone, or we’re starting to slip into the orange zone.
Like our physical training analogy, the further to the right we are on the continuum, the longer it’ll take to recover, and the more specialist support we’re going to need (just like needing to see a physio, or a doctor, in the physical training example). With our mental health, when we start getting into the orange and red zone areas we’re going to need some specialist support to help us figure out how we got there, and to explore some of the best and most expedient ways to get back into the green. So a clinical psychologist, or some other professional clinical support service is the right level of care at the orange and red ends of the mental health continuum. Find a professional who you feel really gets you, really gets where you’re at, and make the time to talk it all through.
Having identified where we’re at on the continuum, the next post will talk about what to do when we discover that actually, we could afford to be doing a little bit more to keep us in the green.