Discussing one’s mental health is a touchy subject, and rightfully so. There is nothing more personal than the element of ourselves that constructs our reality. Keeping that in mind, I am writing this piece from a place of wholehearted love and understanding.
For over a decade, I suffered from chronic anxiety, severe panic attacks, co-dependency, OCD, and ADD and relied on medication to help manage my symptoms. For most of those years, I felt like a victim of my circumstances.
Never was I informed that I could alleviate or eliminate my mental illnesses and disorders by developing awareness, self-compassion, processing past traumas or suppressed emotions, removing myself from toxic environments, or learning how to self-regulate. Instead, I was asked about my symptoms, labeled with a disorder, and prescribed medication. I understand my experience is not the case for everyone, as mental health is becoming more holistically integrated. However, some share a similar experience of being labeled and treated with medication without mention of personal control or responsibility.
Our health, physical and mental, is complex. Illnesses and disorders can arise for many reasons. Some are derived from genetics; others result from toxic environments, trauma, lack of awareness, unhealthy mindsets and beliefs, or poor lifestyle choices. For non-genetic mental illnesses, a diagnosis alone will never be able to pinpoint the exact cause, nor will medications alone be able to offer a proper solution.
Medications can be a wonderful tool to help us get to a place where we can function normally, as they work to balance our hormones and can alleviate the symptoms of our ailments. For some of us, that is enough. Yet, others may find that these medications have adverse effects, or we feel that something is “off.” A lack of contentment, joy, fulfillment, or a sense of connection to ourselves and others may still linger. This is because there is more work to be done that can only come from inner work and conscious, consistent self-care.
My objective is not to tell others what they are or are not responsible for regarding their mental well-being. That is not my place. However, I feel drawn to shed light on common misconceptions that can prevent us from feeling empowered to control as much of our well-being as possible.
Addressing misconceptions about our ability to take control of our well-being:
Many nuances and factors determine our overall well-being. Aside from genetic disorders like schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, etc., our ability to take control and change our circumstances is primarily dictated by the belief that we have the power to do so. If we lack that belief, we will likely not change the behaviors, environments, and mindsets necessary to reverse our ailments. Two common beliefs hinder us from taking control of our mental health:
1. My mental disorder is hereditary; it runs in the family. Therefore, I can do nothing about it.
This statement can be simultaneously true and false. While one’s family may have a long lineage of mental illness (i.e., chronic anxiety), this does not automatically relate to genetics. Instead, there is a greater likelihood the family suffers from a history of trauma or fixed mindsets that have gone unaddressed and subjectively passed down through their behaviors and beliefs for generations.
Just because we have family members who suffer from the same mental illness does not mean we are destined for the same fate. A shared illness may be reversible through awareness, a conscious decision, and action to change. This does not mean it will be easy. However, it is possible.
2. I have a chemical imbalance—another statement that holds both truth and misunderstanding. Our emotions and moods are dictated by chemicals called neurotransmitters that are created in the brain, gut, and heart (aka ‘three brains’). While some people may have been born with an imbalance, these cases make up a small percentage of the population who suffers from a chemical imbalance.
Most of us who suffer from a chemical imbalance do so due to reoccurring negative thoughts, unprocessed emotions or trauma, poor diet, lifestyle choices, or environments that lead to a flood of chemicals that generate unpleasant emotions and feelings. Those emotions and feelings lead to more unhealthy thoughts, behaviors, and choices, which creates a feedback loop of undesirable emotional and physiological responses that often lead to chronic illness or chemical imbalance. Because we lack awareness of this pattern—at no fault of our own—we assume that our imbalance is fixed instead of self-generated and controllable.
Focusing on the elements of our mental health that we can control:
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.” — Henry Ford.
Our thoughts create our reality. They determine how we feel, what we believe, and how we interpret sensory data. Combined, feelings and beliefs determine our choices and reactions to life. Our current reality is a manifestation of past thoughts that lead to actions. We can change our future by changing our thoughts.
Self-awareness (the foundational element of emotional intelligence) helps us pay closer attention to the thoughts we have throughout our day and encourages us to ask questions and observe the correlation between our thoughts, feelings, and actions—a powerful first step in taking control of our mental well-being and potentially reversing our mental ailments.
Focus is a combination of thoughts and awareness. Our minds are experts at seeking out and focusing on potential threats when we are not well, making it easy to lose focus on all the things we have to be grateful for and the potential opportunities awaiting us in life. When we aren’t in a good headspace, everything looks like a threat, and we can get sucked into a feeling of doom and gloom quite easily.
When I find myself in a negative feedback loop of emotion, I find it beneficial to watch, listen to, or read the stories of individuals who have been in the same situation I’ve been in and have overcome their challenges. It lets me know that I am not alone, and it gives me the hope I need to pull through.
When life seems dire, find simple things that you are grateful for. Shift focus from lack, pain, dread, and fear to abundance, pleasure, confidence, and calm. For example, if you feel overwhelmed, you want to find calm. That might be enjoying your morning coffee in solitude. While you are in that moment, focus on the smell of the coffee, the warmth of the mug in your hand, and the stillness of that time. It doesn’t have to be something “significant” to be significant. The act of intentionally switching your focus to the opposite of your unpleasant feeling is taking control of your mental health.
There are many ways to reclaim control of our well-being, more than can fit into one article. What better way to offer additional insights than to ask individuals who have taken back control over their mental well-being what they have done?
Select a topic to read more about what they are personally doing and gain insights into what practices may be right for you:
Journaling | Meditation | Exercise | Therapy | Self-parenting | Reinforced affirmations | Bedtime routines | Self-care | Phone-free time | Separating feelings from reality | Free-writing and more | Naming emotions | Fresh perspective | Taking responsibility | Mindful full-body scan
The most significant change in my mental well-being has been adopting 'the 5-minute journal'— starting and ending the day with gratitude and using one saying as my daily intention 'because the way we do one thing is the way we do all things.' The gratitude created positivity and made me look for the silver linings each day, so I had something to write down in the evening; the daily intention gave me the push to try to undertake anything with my absolute best effort. I've been using this journal for the last ten years now and could not imagine my life without it.
A critical part of my morning routine is journaling—I make myself a cup of hot coffee, jump back into bed, and begin a structured journaling practice. First, I release the worry and anxiety by freewriting those anxious thoughts. Creating that space then allows me to open up to gratitude. And I jot down two to five things going well and that I'm grateful for. These are things that I would normally skip over and not notice or recall when I'm stuck in the worry space. Finally, I write down a few affirmations to support my intention for the day. This practice enables a powerful shift from negative to positive in a compassionate way. I do it every morning, and it’s an empowering way to start the day.
I design my day to include several 5-minute micro-meditations throughout the day—where I sit, connect to my breath, and look at my internal state of being with acceptance, gratitude, and compassion. It is like pushing reset and allows me to start my day over with an open heart and connection to my journey at any time.
Every morning, I meditate for 20 minutes to establish calm in my body and determine my intention or goal for the day. When a stressful situation arises, rather than letting an unpleasant emotion overwhelm me, I breathe to better welcome what is happening to understand why this emotion arises. Then, I determine and choose the state in which I would like to be. This gives me strength and releases the emotional charge.
Space, grace, and therapy. Regular therapy visits allow me to maintain my mental wellness, even as a licensed professional counselor. Therapy is a space where there are no expectations, you don’t have to perform, and where your authentic self can live and thrive. Therapy also segues into introspection and gives me space to honor my true feelings. Grace comes in when I can honor my feelings and listen to my body UNAPOLOGETICALLY. I cry when I want to cry, lay around when I want to be lazy, eat donuts when I crave carbs, and take a mental health day when I just don’t have anything to give. All of this happens with no explanation to anyone. Tomorrow will always be a day to do it better.
Physical activity is something I do every day that provides a mind-body connection and gets me in a good headspace. It is a great way to handle stress and take a break from the chatter in your brain.
To regain control of my mental health, a key strategy I have used is self-parenting. This is a simple technique through which we can nurture our inner child, address unprocessed emotions, heal old wounds, and become self-reliant in terms of our emotional needs.
Something I have used is self-compassion therapy, in which I would ‘parent’ my younger self. To do this, I would write letters to a younger version of myself, telling ‘me’ that I am allowed to feel certain emotions and shouldn’t feel guilty for expressing anxiety symptoms. This means that I now know how to soothe myself when I am stressed or anxious, something that I could only teach myself when it came to adulthood.
To take control of my mental well-being, I start each day with an affirmation and find a song that exudes that feeling. Also, I journal at least four times a week; I start reflecting and writing down thoughts/feelings from the moment I wake up to the moment I’m writing, and I use different colored pens depending on my mood. Lastly, I practice mindfulness regularly so that when something happens, my first reaction is to check in with myself about how my mind, body, and emotions are responding to the situation, which slows down my reaction by first analyzing what’s happening internally and then deciding to react after I ‘checked in’ with myself.
I was feeling anxious going to sleep and upon waking up. I put into habit listening to meditations prior to falling asleep and telling myself positive affirmations as I close my eyes. Upon waking, I think of what I'm grateful for as my eyes are opening. I believe these habits have replaced anxious thoughts.
I start each day with self-care. I meditate, write a gratitude list, and drink hot herbal tea and a delicious, healthy smoothie to start my day. By focusing on nurturing myself before I give to others, I feel replenished, grounded, and peaceful so that I can give my all to my clients.
Hands down, the most important thing I've done to support my mental well-being is to develop a flexible self-care morning routine. I'm an anxious person, and I often wake up stuck in a cycle of negative thinking and worry. And I truly believe that the way you start your day sets the tone for your day.
My life shifted when I implemented a proper, phone-free morning routine. Each morning, I take 15-20 minutes to write down my goals, meditate, do a few yoga sequences, and/or listen to affirmations. This puts me in the right mindset and sets the tone for the entire day!
Separating feelings from reality:
One of the most significant strategies I use is to articulate my response to situations to myself and recognise the difference between what I know and what I am feeling (which are often not aligned). This grounds me in rational thought and reduces my emotional reactions to different situations, thus creating a more stable environment for me to thrive.
When I am stressed, I am much more prone to make situations subjective instead of objective; my emotions paint the experience. Creating awareness of this instant response by asking myself, "What is objectively happening?" helps me separate myself from the stressful story my brain defaults to telling me and gives me the chance to assess how I would like to respond to the situation instead of reacting to it.
Free writing and more:
I went from complete burnout (taking medical leave from a job) and chronic health issues to practicing mind + body + soul integration and reclaiming my well-being. I use freewriting to understand what influences my emotional state. That knowledge helps me be less reactive, more compassionate (with self and others), communicate more effectively, and form deeper relationships. I also support my mental health and emotional resilience with meditation and holistic wellness strategies including nutrition, movement, and rest.
I name my emotions. When I identify my emotions without stuffing them, I can regulate my reactions. Emotions aren’t identities; they are experiences.
Anytime my day is going downhill, I remind myself of a simple phrase my friend told me over lunch: "At any point in time, you can start your day over." That's what I do. I choose to focus on moving forward from that moment and leave the rest behind.
As a parent, business owner, and educator, life gets hectic. This one strategy has made all the difference in the world for many of my clients and me. I used to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and impatient often. Until I realized that I was allowing an inconvenience to take up almost as much mental and emotional energy as a tragedy. Now, I consider everything on an inconvenience versus tragedy scale and decide how much mental and emotional energy it deserves. This shift in perspective allows me to remain calm, patient, and content! This simple mindset shift has made all the difference in my parenting and my relationship with my children. I hope your audience will find it just as powerful.
When I was younger, I was diagnosed with depression, but as recently as 50 years ago, but was bit recognized as a neurological problem. Someone gave me 'The Guide to Rational Living' by Albert Ellis, and that really helped me. I learned that nobody made me feel anything and that I was responsible for my own emotions, and not to let people manipulate me. It helps to be somewhat introspective. Other things I do: keep a regular schedule regarding sleep. I don't overindulge in intoxicants. if I feel stressed or have an anxiety attack, I try to exercise, and I tell myself, “This, too, shall pass."
— Robyn Michaels
To help maintain my mental health, I have scheduled check-ins with myself three times a day. I first do a physical body scan to bring awareness to any area that is overly tense, and actively stretch it to release the tension and stop sending signals to my brain that I'm bracing my body for a threat. I then do a mental check to gauge my state of stress, anger, or other negative emotions, and if necessary, allow myself a break to relax, recalibrate, and recenter, before going back to my daily tasks.