This post is part of an editorial series, “Healthy Mama,” brought to you by the Fort Worth Moms Blog and Texas Health Care Privia Medical Group North Texas, which includes Dr. Elisabeth Wagner, Dr. Mickey Hooper, Dr. Bea Kutzler, Dr. Doug Decker, Dr. Jamie Erwin, Dr. Kathleen Cammack, Dr. Emily Maas, Dr. Jennifer McLeland, Dr. Lindsay Breedlove, Dr. Martha Guerra, Dr. Danielle Burkett, Dr. Robert Zwernemann, Dr. Jay Herd, Dr. Ingrid Kohlmorgen, and Dr. Martin Read. We hope these pieces provide you with helpful information, encouragement, and answers as you make decisions for your own health.
As moms, we’re constantly told that we should be doing things to care for our mental and emotional health. That we won’t be able to care for others if we haven’t cared for ourselves first. That we should “take mental health days” or “don’t sweat the small stuff” and other phrases that sound great . . . in theory.
But what does “mentally healthy” and “emotionally balanced” even mean? Sometimes this expectation can feel like just another thing we’re failing at, like showering every day.
I’m here to share a professional perspective on this question. (And, full disclosure: Today was a dry shampoo day.) Because when I’m not momming, I’m focused on helping others improve their mental and emotional wellbeing as a clinical psychologist.
Here’s a just a few of the top things I think about in evaluating “mental health”:
Emotionally Healthy People Feel ALL the Feels
The idea that we should be “happy” all the time and something is wrong with us if we’re not is simply NOT realistic. Not only that, but this expectation is a surefire route to anxiety and depression. We all know people who seem “overly happy” or who respond to every situation with fear or anger. When our emotional range is restricted like this, it’s a good sign something’s out of balance.
The sensation of happiness, like all emotions, comes and goes. In fact, the more we attempt to force feelings of happiness, talk ourselves into being happy, or compare all other feelings against the desired standard of “happy,” the LESS likely we are to actually feel it. Go figure.
All of us would rather not feel the painful and uncomfortable feelings. But here’s what I’ve found: There’s simply NO WAY around them. Yeah, I know. It sucks. Emotionally healthy people know that eventually they’re going to have to feel all their feelings to process and work through them.
Spoiler Alert: The more quickly we ACCEPT and allow the emotion that’s arising to simply be there, as it is, without attempting to change it, the less likely it is to get “stuck” in its process.
Mentally Healthy People Think About Their Thinking
Thoughts have an ENORMOUS influence on our feelings. In fact, the way we interpret situations is the number one determinant of how we feel. The problem is most of our interpretations are based on incomplete or even inaccurate information and . . . well . . . we get it wrong A LOT.
We can all think of a time we thought one thing, gave that situation lots of worry or anger or sadness, and then learned that we had totally misinterpreted it! For example, I have a tendency to think people are mad at me when they haven’t responded to my attempts to contact them. Oh, the many times I’ve been proven wrong and then wished I could get back the time I wasted worrying!
Mentally health people recognize that their thoughts are subject to error and do their best not to view their thoughts as “fact.” Some manage their emotions by challenging irrational thoughts. Others simply see their thoughts as words that pass through their minds but which shouldn’t be the ultimate guide for their actions.
In any case, if you’re feeling like you’re in a prison of thought or that overthinking is regularly interfering with important things like sleep or socializing, it’s a good time to reach out for help.
Emotionally Healthy People Live in Line with the Serenity Prayer, Even if They’ve Never Heard of It!
Trying to control what we can’t actually control is a guaranteed path to frustration, anxiety, and depression. This includes other people and their emotions, things that have happened in the past, and things that may or may not happen in the future.
There’s a reason the Serenity Prayer is so popular in the mental health and substance recovery fields, and it applies no matter your religion or spiritual background. It’s simply chock-full of healthy wisdom!
“God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Mentally Healthy People Cope with Feelings in Productive Ways
If my work has taught me anything, it’s that how we cope with what happens in our lives is critical. It’s also shown me that AVOIDANCE is just about the worst strategy we can pick in most situations. Unfortunately, avoidance is often the strategy we’re most tempted to use. Epic brain evolution fail.
Productive coping is ACTIVE coping. It’s talking to friends and family, exercising, listening to music, drawing, writing and virtually any of the ways that help us to actually process our feelings. Unproductive and avoidant coping is drinking, drugs, isolating, rationalizing/overthinking, and all the ways we attempt to control or not feel our feelings.
Emotionally Healthy People Let Their Values Guide the Way
While many of us learned that we should let our thoughts and feelings guide our behaviors, I’ve found in my life and work that these guideposts often lead us astray. On the other hand, our values are enduring. Whether it’s family, education, work, faith, or any of the hundreds of values we can hold, we have the power to choose actions that are in line with our values no matter how we feel. And that realization can be pretty empowering.
For example, if relationships with family and friends are valuable to me, I can choose to reach out and spend time with friends and family even if I’m feeling anxious or sad. The moment we stop living in line with our values, we will feel distress. Guaranteed.
Mentally Healthy People Mess Up
Mentally healthy people screw up, make mistakes, feel like they’re failing at times, and strive to gain self-awareness and rebalance again . . . and again . . . and again.
Emotional balance and mental health is a moving target for most of us. Life will throw each of us off balance at times and that is totally, 100 percent, completely NORMAL.
The more open and accepting we can be with ourselves and our loved ones about what we’re going through, the more quickly we tend to rebalance. Secrets keep us sick, and there are always people willing to listen and be with us as we work through the pains and joys of living. Those people may be friends, family, or professionals.
If mental and emotional health is one of your values, you CAN choose actions in line with that value even if you’re feelings stressed, anxious, depressed, or completely bonkers after a day of wrangling toddlers. YOU are valuable.