Last week during an interview I was asked, “Why are so many people struggling with issues of mental health?”. It was a great question that, despite the complexity of the issue, I tried to answer as simply as I could. “Because we treat our mental health like we treat our cars.”, I responded, piquing the interest of the interviewer. “We take our mind for granted like we do our vehicles. We drive around not thinking about what’s happening under the hood, provide the minimal maintenance required, and only seek specialized support when something is broken.”
Unfortunately, this is not only how we address our mental health. For too long this is how we have oriented ourselves to health in general. Without truly embracing what our brains and bodies need to operate well over the long term, we compromise our health with small destructive decisions in the short term. Here are a few of the most common:
We wait until we are exhausted to rest.
This is the equivalent of waiting until the gas light is on and flashing before pulling to gas up. When we push ourselves to function without rest, we compromise our ability to be resilient and effective.
We go too hard and too fast, for too long.
We’ve all seen those who sit at a stop light revving their engine and then when the light turns green take off, tires squealing only to end up right beside us at the next light 300 feet away. This is how many of us manage life. We race around at 100mph taking on anything and everything based on the faulty assumption that we should or simply have no other choice.
We have no idea how our brains work.
Can you describe the engine in your vehicle? How does it work and what does it need to take you from point A to B? Most cannot answer these questions about their brains either. And yet our brains govern every aspect of our lives including the choices we make, the relationships we choose, and the way we feel. Without understanding our own basic psychology, achieving sustainable mental health becomes a shot in the dark.
We wait too long to get help.
Car breaks down – you call a mechanic. You break down – you call a therapist. This makes sense. But having consistent support or guidance BEFORE you break down also makes sense. Periodic “check-ins” with a mental health professional (much like you would like a doctor or dentist), combined with the ongoing support of a trusted advisor or mentor can make a world of difference to your mental health.
We ignore our warning lights.
If you covered the entire dashboard of your car it would still work. BUT you would un-necessarily put yourself at risk of speeding, running out of gas, not seeing an engine failure light, or any number of other hazards your dashboard is designed to alert you to. Like our dashboard our brains and bodies send us signals to help us know how we are doing and when we might be headed for a problem. But these warning signals only work if we pay attention and respond when the need arises.
Achieving mental health and wellness requires us to focus on the long term but act in the present – before the break down! Take time to rest, slow down, and think about why you feel the need to take on so much. Learn about your brain and body, and what both need to be healthy and resilient. You do not need a degree in Neuroscience to understand the basics. Start with attending a workshop, read an article, or set up regular “check-ins” with a mental health professional. Look to connect with someone you trust. Get a mentor or seek the guidance of a trusted friend of family member. Finally, listen to yourself and trust your intuition. Just like your dashboard –look for signs that things are not ok and respond as quickly as possible.
Like your car, the longevity of your mental health depends on the maintenance and care you provide it each day. So treat yourself well!
-Bonnie J. Skinner, MEd, RP, CCC