In recognizing #WorldMentalHealthDay, I am compelled to reflect on my own mental journey since starting my Ph.D. program. I didn’t anticipate mental health being a part of my doctoral adventure, but I soon discovered it went alongside my studies. When I think about the high levels of anxiety I felt when I started the program and my relationship with my mental health now, I appreciate the progress I have been willing to make. I understand myself in a deeper way, which includes knowing the root causes of some of my challenges. In order to make my growth a continual process, I have noticed there are some strategies I practice on a regular basis. I have listed five of them below.
Number One: Regularly exercise or conduct some type of physical movement. From a young age to young adulthood, I have been involved in some sort of physical activity, whether it is running, tennis, or dancing. However, I did not realize how essential it was for my mental health until my doctoral program. Within a year of starting the program and many discussions with my counselor, I started a regular exercise routine. First, it was 3 -4 times a week. Now I do yoga and cardio almost daily with occasional trips to the indoor climbing wall. These activities are great ways for me to channel my energy and stabilize my anxiety. Plus, I now have a regular sleep schedule.
Number Two: Foster positive relationships. As an introvert, I have not been one to seek group activities. At the same time, I have noticed that being around certain people can be motivating, energizing, and fun. With the doctoral degree, the intentionality of how I spend my time has increased. I have become hypersensitive to how people impact my energy level. It has taken me time to understand that building relationships with people that are holistically nurturing helps my mental health. The trick is finding the right people to bring into my inner circle.
Number Three: Cultivate positive energy within me. Just as I am aware of fostering positive relationships with others, I am equally aware of the energy I bring to others and the type of relationship I have with myself. Nurturing myself is an intentional action I commit to each day. For me, this means I have had to pay attention to my diet, what I watch on t.v., places I go, my self-talk and many other things. It’s a different type of work that takes daily commitment and diligence. I’ve also had to learn to set boundaries, which as a former people-pleaser has been tough to do. I’m grateful I’ve been able to cultivate tools that help me make healthy choices to nurture my holistic self.
Number Four: Work from a place of passion. When I entered the doctoral program, I felt the weight of many “should’s” floating in my life. I should go to this conference or I should write this paper. There was this dance of doing what I wanted and doing what I thought I should do. Eventually, I decided to take a step back and reflect on my health. I made a choice to only engage in professional activities that are fulfilling for me and that I have a passion for. If I am making a professional choice based on fear or “should”, then I don’t do it. This has meant that I am not out in my professional field nearly as much as others. Yet, at the same time, I am happier, feel less anxious, and enjoy my life. Now that I make professional choices from a place of love and passion, I am more intense, purposeful, and believe that those who interact with me can feel that I am truly engaged in the experience.
Number Five: Breaks are a part of life. I have a sign in my bedroom that says “when all else fails, take a nap”. This sign reminds me that it’s okay to take a break. In fact, if I am stressed out about a life situation, I find that after taking a nap, I have clarity and make better decisions. Though naps are one of my favorite breaks, there are other ways I like to spend my time. I also like to take trips to the national parks, spend an afternoon taking photos, watch a documentary, or have a meal with friends. My only stipulation is that it has to be a break that is nourishing in some way (i.e. mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically).
Maintaining my mental health continues to be a process, and each day it gets better. I know being consistent with my strategies allows me to make improvements in my mental health. By making my mental health a priority as I would through the doctoral degree, I am confident this is my new normal that will sustain and nourish me as I grow and evolve.
I hope you found a few of my strategies resonate with you. Please feel free to share techniques you’ve developed that keep you mentally healthy. We all learn from each other, and I’m sure there may be some strategies that I could add to my mental health toolkit.