Milestones for Mental Health

Milestones for Mental Health

by Jerry Slayton.
So, here we are, 9 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m sure all of us have fully adapted to the new normal and are feeling completely grounded in our work/life balance.

Or perhaps not.

It turns out that sweeping change in many areas of our day-to-day routine is difficult for us humans to manage. From school, to work, to leisure activities, and now the holidays, we have all shifted our normal routines in order to stay safe and protect others. These shifts in routine require us to rebalance our lives and examine our mental health. I have felt the need for this re-balancing many times throughout the pandemic and went in search of ideas that could inform my new routines and mental health.

What better place to start than with a Ted Talk by Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, and the founder and chair of the Center for Healthy Minds. His research focuses on mental health and the qualities that promote human flourishing. The Ted Talk lists four mental challenges that face our society today:

  • Distractionability
  • Loneliness
  • Negative Self-talk
  • and Loss of Purpose.

Photograph of Dr. Richard J. Davidson, a list of the 4 mental challenges that face our society today and a statistic that reads, “47% of the time, the average American adult is not paying attention to what they are doing.” From a Killingsworth and Gilbert study 2010

Many of these resonated with me, but instead of focusing on these challenges, I want to direct our attention to Dr. Davidson’s Four Pillars of a Healthy Mind, and explore some practical considerations.

  • Awareness: Dr. Davidson describes awareness as, “knowing what our minds are doing or thinking about.” This directly relates to the challenge of distractionability we listed above, the act of consistently being distracted. Mindfulness practices like a sitting meditation can give our minds the opportunity to re-balance in a calm and quiet environment. Practical considerations for increasing awareness might be putting our phones away, monitoring our screen time—especially before bed, and scheduling screen breaks throughout our workday. These simple breaks can create milestones, or events, that mark our day.
  • Connection: Kindness, appreciation and compassion for ourselves and others connect us to our environment and community. Taking the time to notice and appreciate our place in the world can combat that challenge of loneliness that we mentioned before. A breathing exercise that I learned recently, called the Wim Hof method, helps me connect with my breath and appreciate something I would ordinarily take for granted. I’ve included a link to the exercise here.  (Warning, this technique may not be suitable for everyone. Listen to your body and adapt the technique as needed.)
  • Insight: This pillar speaks to the negative self-talk we listed above as a challenge. He goes on to say, “A heathy mind entails changing our relationship to our personal narrative. Not so much changing the narrative itself, but changing our relationship to it.” Giving ourselves the room to rethink the negative stories we tell ourselves can shift our perspective and allow for increased mental health. This is a sensitive topic for us all, but for me sharing my story in safe spaces with friends and family has given me the opportunity to hear how I describe myself to others, and has provided some insight.
  •  Purpose: Purpose in our personal lives and work drives us toward the future. Dr. Davidson challenges us to include more of our day-to-day activities, such as taking out the garbage and doing the laundry, into this sense of purpose. Doing this can change purpose from something that is aspirational to something that we achieve on a daily basis. Take a look at four ways to cultivate purpose here.

List of the Four Pillars of Mental Health: Awareness, Connection, Insight, and Purpose.

This article is intended to be a starting point, as I am not a professional in the field, and simply a person looking to grow. We can all benefit from mindfulness practices, and I encourage us to think of these practices as milestones on our road to mental health. Explore more Healthy mind innovations here.


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