As we continue our month-long dive into the different parts of wellness, what little things you can do for you, and for your family, this week I look at mental and emotional wellness.
First of all: what is Mental and emotional well-being? Answer me this: how do you feel? How do you handle day-to-day life? The answer is likely to change from day to day, month to month … maybe even minute to minute (perhaps especially for parents, when dealing with preschoolers or teenagers who are also on a mental and emotional rollercoaster). When I refer to mental and emotional health, a ‘good’ rating would indicate an individual who has positive self-esteem, and can healthfully feel and express a wide range of emotions. This person can build and maintain relationships with others and engage in the world. Very importantly, this part of wellness also includes coping and dealing with stresses of daily life, being productive, and having the ability to adapt and change. Life is full of a lot of emotions, so one can also understand that it will change. For someone who is well-balanced in this component of wellness, they will be able to see that things may look down RIGHT NOW and they feel the sadness, but understand that things will change, and they will be able to move past that sadness at some point; sadness is not enduring, nor defining. For one who is not as well in this component will struggle to find their proverbial silver lining; the sadness will endure and cause despair.
Life is full of stressors. Small but significant things that may have a negative impact on this realm of health can include loneliness or dealing with a family member who is ailing, or an impending relocation (often the case for us Foreign Service folks); larger stressors might be lack of sleep, debt or worry about money, unemployment, abuse or even trauma. Have you ever heard about a Stress scale? This is a tool that determines your stress load. Different life events carry a different stress load; your ability to deal with these stressors is greatly determined by your level of mental and emotional well-being. This can be defined as your resiliency, which is your ability to bounce back after a slap in the face (both proverbial and physical). You can't go through life without being knocked back or even down a few times; how you get back up is telling of your coping abilities. As the saying goes, you can't fully understand hope without understanding hopelessness. It is the ability to move through the stages - towards hope - that defines wellness. Resilience is not just trying hard; but rather trying hard, sure, and also being willing to try differently, developing a strong set of problem-solving skills.
Another key part of this component is your ability to decompress and relax; honestly ask yourself these questions:
What do I need to recharge?
What does my Me time look like?
How much of myself do I give to myself? To others? And am I happy with that balance?
Do I have a sense of contentment?
Am I able to show gratitude and appreciation?
In what ways do I feel loved?
Answering these questions honestly and reflectively will help you determine if you need to take steps towards finding a more healthful mental and emotional state. Or you may determine you are just fine, thank you very much, and we can move on.
What can we do, what can we say to help you really develop this realm of your wellness? Yours and your kids? This week, 5 simple things you can do for yourself that will make a big improvement in your mental and emotional wellness. And most of them are free!
1. Say no more often. You can ‘yes’ yourself into a corner, giving away your peace of mind, increasing your stress levels, taxing your time-management skills. By all means, say yes to the things you actually want to do, the things you HAVE to do, but … that does not mean every little ask deserves a yes. Say no and do not apologize for it.
2. I know I have already said this, but it bears repeating: Get enough sleep. Without enough sleep every emotion, every thought, every feeling is amplified and exacerbated. It's not the end of the world because there is no milk for your coffee but it honestly feels like it. Every little niggle turns into a huge mountain offense. Every task you try to do is filled with errors. What fixes this? Getting enough sleep.
3. As much as you can, validate the feelings of others. It is not nice to call others 'overly sensitive' or tell them to get over it; the feelings (and associated angst) are real. Validate that. Hear what they are saying. It isn't your problem to solve (unless that is what they are asking you to do), but if the person in front of you telling you a problem is someone you care about, then give an honest effort to care about how they are feeling. And listen to it without any devices anywhere near you.
4. Be aware that all emotions are useful. I read recently that if one believes that happiness is the most important emotion, then they are actually less happy (on average). Is this sort of like the Facebook phenomena ('everyone else's FB life is so much cooler than mine...')? I don't know. But fact of the matter is: all emotions are important and vital and understand that is part of being emotional health. One very critical part of emotional wellness is developing your skills to deal with and move past difficult emotions; this is also one of the trickiest parts. Acceptance of all emotions - positive and negative - is actually a key part in helping one to be less stressed and anxious. Learning to not label emotions as 'good' or 'bad' is also a key part of this acceptance.
5. Deliberately set time to recharge regularly. Time for yourself and time for your family, too. We are in an age where busyness defines us; we are constantly going going going. Our schedules are full, our calendars are overbooked, we run from one thing to the next. We can't be at level Red all of the time, but that's kind of what 'normal life' feels like, right? I don't notice myself getting busier and busier until I finally get the chance to take a break (like go on vacation) and then I have an a-ha moment: (read: ‘get smacked in the face with’) how nice it is to just sit, to just be and enjoy. Then when it comes time to reengage, I realize how many things I need to turn back on and ... it is ridiculous. And it completely undoes all of the good I managed to find with the vacation in the first place. Don't do that to yourself; just set the time for you aside right off the bat, and do it in pen on your calendar so it can't be changed. Non-negotiable.
For your family:
1. Have an open dialogue with your kids about what self-confidence looks like. While this may appear to be more of a social thing, self-confidence is such a key part of one's mental and emotional well-being. Being happy with who you are, knowing that making mistakes is human and from mistakes we grow and get better, knowing that not every person will like us and that is okay ... all of this is a part of our self-confidence. We, as adults, have hopefully learned these lessons and have come to own our self-confidence realizations and realities. Our kids? Still working on it. Help them develop these essential skills by being completely approachable with their questions. Let them know about some of your learning lessons and mistakes. They will appreciate the candor and maybe learn a few things without having to have the hard knocks themselves (or, if they are like my kids, they will still go through the ‘teachable moment’ and then realize what you said was actually true, and then give you that grunt of acknowledgement when you ask them how activity xyz went).
2. While I am encouraging dialogue with your kids, what about helping your kids to break those emotional traps society has created for them: boys don't cry; girls don't yell; boys are able to 'brush it off' when they get hurt; girls shouldn't get angry and talk back; boys shouldn't get emotional; girls should be calm. You want to know what I think? The sooner we can help our kids identify, name, and express the full gamut of their emotions, the sooner we will be able to put psychologists out of business (sorry, doctors!). Emotionally intelligent people feel and experience all of their emotions; they are not floored or felled by the strong negative ones, and they are not crashing after the huge positive ones. Both males and females should and can experience all emotions; there are not any that should be sorted into the 'girl' or 'boy' pile. Just like it’s okay for girls to wear blue and boys to wear pink, the full emotional experience should be available for our kids, no matter what society thinks.
3. Let your children solve their own (age-appropriate) mental problems. Just like college essay judges can tell when parents have written the essay for their kids, we observers can all tell when a parent is taking over solving their kid's problems. Parent, you cannot put your kids in bubbles; let them have life experiences. Letting a child solve their own problems - be it a schedule conflict or a lost toy - not only teaches the child that they can and should depend on themselves to solve their own problems, but it also builds self-confidence and teaches them how to assess when and if they do need outside assistance. Not every problem is going to be as easy as looking under the bed for the lost teddy bear; soon enough, as their age, abilities and independence increases, so does the complexity of their situations and problems.
4. Respect respect respect. Help your kids to understand what respect is, what it means to have a 'difference of opinion' and how one can have a discussion with another person who may not necessarily share the same viewpoint. Help your child develop their world view; not every child is going to be a white boy from a middle-income family living in a foreign country, attending a private international school (Qu'elle suprise!). Every single aspect of what makes us individuals - our gender, skin color, birth place, birth order, religious preference, favorite color, dominant hand, language skills, breakfast choice .... these all color our point of view. And none of it makes us wrong. Or right. It just gives us an opinion, and that is something everyone is entitled to. And, further, one can learn so very much if we take the time and gather the patience to listen to the opinion of others. In fact, we might very well just change our own opinions a bit, too, once we listen to others. It is our responsibility as parents to take the time to teach our children to respect others.
5. You've heard of Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs right? It is part of our drive to secure the bottom of the pyramid for ourselves and for our loved ones (security, food and water, warmth, rest). As we move up the pyramid, we move to more emotional needs like love and self-esteem. Finally at the top lies our self-fulfillment. (This is clearly much more complicated than these two lines can express and my apologies to all psych majors for glossing over years of your schooling in a couple sentences.) The point is, while it is your right to secure these for yourself and for your loved ones; it is NOT your right to infringe on or take these same rights of others. It is our jobs as parents to help our children understand this. Yes, you might see this is an extension of #4 for kids (above) but I think it is important enough to emphasize this.
So. These are simple suggestions. None of these are novel or nouveau. None of these are life changing alone; together, though, they can make a positive impact on your and your family’s Mental and emotional health. Next week, more suggestions for another of the areas of Wellness.