What is the connection between Mental Health & Self-Care?
In this post I will be talking about my recent podcast interview with Dr. Gina Di Giulio about the connection between Mental Health and Self-Care and 9 simple ways to prioritize self-care for maintaining good mental health.
I was always certain of the connection between Self-Care and Mental Health, and after my recent podcast interview with Dr. Gina Di Giulio, I’m more convinced than ever.
Even the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that Self-Care was crucial in getting to know yourself, and caring for yourself and others created more honest citizens. More specifically, Socrates understood the restorative power of Self-Care and the “chain of care”. He believed that in practicing Self-Care you teach others and become a role model for them. According to Socrates, in taking care of ourselves leads to knowing ourselves and reducing the risk of harming others because we are more self-aware of our boundaries and potential.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”Audre Lorde
But what does it have to do with Mental Health? Well Self-Care relies on an increased level of self-awareness. Increased levels of self-awareness can help you to recognize patters in your emotions, stressors and triggers that worsen your mental state. Self-awareness is a powerful tool that can help self-regulate emotions. This doesn’t mean that Self-Care is the cure for mental illness, but research shows many people fail to provide adequate Self-Care in the midst of a flare up of symptoms. I believe that learning to manage Mental Health only truly starts when you reintroduce Self-Care. Because if we’re not taking care of ourselves we are neglecting ourselves.
Here’s a simple example, imagine if you neglected to clean your home and keep it tidy, doing the laundry and taking out the trash – imagine the big pile of mess, and the horrible smell that would cause. I believe that self-neglect can only lead to a catastrophic ending for our mental, emotional and physical health. So maybe Self-Care is not the cure to mental illness, but it sure can help to prevent it. It’s the best prevention we have available to us. But unfortunately, many of us only take it seriously when we are unwell and as a rehabilitation measure.
These uncertain times have triggered anxiety in a lot of people, including those without a history of anxiety before. Dr. Gina argues, it’s not only the uncertainty around finances, health, relationships, etc. but also this sense of feeling out of control for the outcomes, especially those that need a sense of predictability and routine in their lives. Basically, many of us are feeling anxious because we have lost our everyday routine, and we can’t control what is going to happen next. Unfortunately, after several months of feeling this heavy anxiety, Dr. Gina argues that it can flip into depression. I can personally attest to this, no matter how in-control, I believe I am – I’m really beginning to feel its effects and more and more feeling a little down about the current situation.
But what causes the anxiety? Interestingly it’s the stress that can cause the anxiety and if it’s not addressed properly, it can lead to depression. There’s that 6 little word again, what many call the silent killer- STRESS!
I do want to differentiate the difference between stress and stressor because oftentimes we do get these mixed up. A stressor can be your boss, co-workers, traffic jams, piles of paper on your desk, or unread emails or that long list of things to do, projects, and demanding deadlines, etc. Usually, we can’t really do anything about these stressors, agree? We can’t really change your boss or your co-workers, unless you quit and find another job. Other stressors are also family members such as your kids or partner. They can definitely stress you out. But again we really can’t do much about these family stressors, especially if for the majority of the time you do love them, I hope.
Stress, on the other hand, is your reaction to the stressor. And the good news is that you CAN control that reaction to the stressor. And the best way to control it is to learn how to respond versus react to the stressor. We respond by controlling the emotion that we are experiencing caused by the stressor, such as frustration, sadness, grief, anxiety, worry, etc. When we learn to control that emotion, we learn how to respond to it. And there are numerous techniques to help us do that, like the 3 Spheres of Control technique, I have shared with you in a Youtube video. But the key is self-awareness, you need to first be very self-aware that you are reacting and not responding to the stressful situation.
How does one develop Self-Awareness? You gotta do the WORK!
Meaning that you need to invest in your self-development by taking courses, listening to podcasts, reading books, keeping a journal, doing self-reflection exercises, taking personality & psychometric tests to get to know yourself better, going on Self-Care retreats, hiring a coach or mentor, engaging in meditation and mindfulness techniques, developing your concentration skills, etc. Basically, learning how to go within, be present and observe your thoughts without judgement. These practises will help you develop a check-in process that will literally become like a stop light for when you’re about to react to a stressful situation.
This was the sequence of events in my personal development journey, I invested heavily in self-development programs, tests, assessments, self-reflection exercise, books, podcasts, retreats, etc. Engaging in mindfulness, meditation and other techniques habitually, allowed me to be able to feel myself about to react to a situation and I was able to pause, and choose how to respond versus automatically reacting. I can literally have a conversation with myself and calm myself down and refrain from reacting – almost like pressing on the breaks when having to come to a sudden stop. It feels as if I have more time to self-reflect and choose my response to the stressor, versus in the past I would immediately (over)react. Often times, in a unresourceful manner leading to either an argument or more stress. Also, as time passes and I reinforce these techniques, I personally feel I’m building stronger personal resilience to these stressors.
So if we learn how to self-regulate our emotional response to these stressors, then we will be more efficiently coping and in a better state of mind. Avoiding that the stress will lead to more perceived stress, and ultimately chronic stress. Interestingly, our brain cannot tell the difference between perceived and real stress, it will react the exact same way, and begin the exact same cascade of chemical processes, often leading to excess cortisol in our blood stream.
Focus on What is in Your Direct Control
If you’re worrying about something – ask yourself – Is this thing that I’m worried about something that I can actually control? Because if it is, then you either have to acknowledge that and move on, or find a different way of coping, like letting go or walking away.
Often times people feel anxious because they are worrying about things that are not in their direct control and the idea of letting go of control, especially for Type A personalities, can equate to giving up. A powerful technique that can be helpful here is the Reframe technique, which helps you change your perception of stressful events through a questioning process.
What is the impact on Women?
Dr. Gina argues that because women are socialized to be natural born soldiers and warriors many of us might be more inclined to take on more or not ask for help. Shame might also play an important role here, and the stigma associated with talking about it, which adds to the stress and anxiety.
She recommends considering to do less and not try to be a hero, she believes that superwoman doesn’t exist – it’s a myth. Women often put themselves last and do not prioritize Self-Care because of competing priorities in their lives – family, careers, household chores, aging parents, etc. But Self-Care is not a luxury, it’s an obligation for overall health and especially Mental Health.
The connection between Self-Care and Mental Health is intrinsically linked, but which one comes first? According to Dr. Gina, they are so interconnected that you can’t have one without the other. Self-Care is necessary for good Mental wellness, and vice-versa. Because feeling or being mentally well, better enables you to engage in Self-Care, which maintains wellness.
Why it’s important to take care of your Gut for Mental Health?
Another important connection that is often overlooked or perhaps unknown, that can ensure mental well-being, is the connection between our diet and our Mental Health. Dr. Gina explains that the amygdala, which is the seat of our emotions in the brain, its over activity has been associated with inflammation in the gut by way of releasing cortisol, which is the stress hormone. Stress causes the brain to release cortisol to the gut, causing inflammation. This is important because our gut has the most serotonin receptors, anywhere in the body, including the brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that has been associated most closely with mood.
Let me rephrase this important point, there are more serotonin receptors in our gut than there are in our brain. Decreases in serotonin are associated with both depression and anxiety. So what this means is that what you eat is going to affect how you feel. There is very recent research on the gut-brain connection clearly showing this phenomena. There are “mind” or “brain” diets that focus on the consumption of certain foods that can sharpen brain functioning, cognition, and associated with longevity and are protective against age related cognitive decline and longevity. So the science is proving this powerful connection between the brain and our gut, and that’s why I like to say that you are truly what you eat and what you eat ate.
“What you eat is going to affect how you feel”
9 Simple Ways To Prioritize Self-Care For Boosting Your Mental Health
Here’s a little more detail around these 9 Self-Care Habits:
It’s important to carve out time for Self-Care, physically scheduling it in your calendar and putting it on your to-do-list or it will not be a priority – basically schedule it as if it was a doctor’s appointment or an important meeting.
I encourage you to reach out to family & friends regularly on Zoom, FaceTime, Whatsapp Video, Nature Walks, etc. I even started organizing walk & talk video calls with my friends in different locations.
Now more than ever is a great time to re-evaluate if you’re living a purposeful life and whether or not what you’re doing in life is aligned to your values. I invite you to do something meaningful and engage in activities that feed your soul.
Incorporate a daily gratitude practice, perhaps at the end of your day think of 3 -5 things you’re grateful for that day. Keeping a journal is highly recommended not only because of the power in writing things down, but also because you can always refer back to it. Worthy of mention that the gratitude exercise, comes from research at the Happiness Lab, at Harvard. The research found that people who practiced gratitude for 30 days in a row, have been associated with decreases in depression of 28%, that a 1% improvement every day, on average, that is significant that can that can move the needle between actually being clinically depressed and not. And that 30% improvement is just after 30 days. So that’s something really simple. You can check out my Gratitude Meditation here.
Spending time in Nature, is now scientifically proven to be an antidote for stress and improve mental and overall health. From lowering blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reducing nervous system arousal, enhancing immune system function, increasing self-esteem, reducing anxiety, and also improving your mood. What else can you ask for from our beautiful Mother Nature!
When going for your walks, pick up the pace because research suggests increasing your heart rate, so breaking a sweat, about 3 times a week for only 30mins is great for mental health. It naturally boosts the feel good neurotransmitters, predominately serotonin and dopamine in your brain, and are really protective against mental health conditions of any kind. Dr. Gina shared with us that cardiovascular exercise is proven to be just as efficacious as taking meditation for anxiety and depression. So exercise is literally like medication for the brain.
I like to say that SLEEP IS SACRED and a fundamental building block of good Mental Health. Dr. Gina argues that during these turbulent times, sleep has really fallen by the wayside and many people have disrupted sleep-wake cycle. Especially with people working from home and being on screens most of the day. She recommends having a sleep routine that supports 6-8 hours of sleep every night for optimal performance the next day. She recommends having a routine that ensures some sort of winding down or decompressing, like no screens before bed because they are known to dysregulate melatonin production. Melatonin is the hormone that we actually have in our brain that regulates sleep. So essentially, if you look at screens before bedtime, the brain is going to be confused and it’s going to think that it’s daytime. Late night screen time has been associated with poor quality sleep, and specifically preventing you from getting into deep sleep. That deep, restorative sleep where the brain heals and repairs itself and where it consolidates the learnings of the day. I love the 3-2-1 nightly sleep routine, which is pretty simple to follow and can really set you up for success the next day. It looks something like this:
- Avoid food 3hrs before bed
- Avoid work 2hrs before bed
- Avoid screens 1hr before bed
Making a sincere attempt to be kind to yourself and have self-compassion during these times is vital to your Mental Health because as Dr. Gina suggests – this is not a time to strive for perfection.
The last but most definitely not least Self-Care tip and one that is very close to my heart is Nutrition, ensuring the consumption of whole foods and avoiding trigger foods that are not nutrient dense and deplete critical vitamins and minerals that are building blocks for optimal Mental wellbeing.
If you have any questions or want to dive deeper into your health, simply Schedule your FREE Introduction Call Today!. I’m here to help you embrace Self-Care and feel like your happier and sexier self again.
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