Mental Health begins with me and you: A Psychologist’s reflection on her own Mental Health day promises

As a psychologist I have the privilege of working with people every day and the unusual job of dealing with the most intense feelings, thoughts and private matters every day.  It is important to acknowledge that the kinds of conversations I have with people daily as a Clinical Psychologist are the ones about our mental health and life that we have only with the people we most trust – family, partners and in many cases only therapists.

Panic, anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, grief, relationship issues, parenting, work performance, family conflict, abuse, decision making, betrayal, insecurity, lack of confidence, failure, shame, vulnerability, fear, guilt are just some of the many themes and experiences that get talked about almost every day in the room . It’s not exactly about what you had for breakfast or what show you watched last night on television is it?

But it’s not always that intense either – therapy is a process that has a life of it’s own with great ups and downs, twists and turns, a bit like our mental health. The willingness to follow that path as a client and to stay on such a winding road mirrors the challenges that we all feel to keep our mental health on track and sometimes even stay alive, but fundamentally the safety of the relationship provides the basis for making that possible.

What most people want to ask a psychologist “So, how do you cope?”

As a psychologist, I can’t tell you how many times during my 18 years of practice  I have heard the question from my clients:  How do you deal with hearing about people in that amount of pain every day? What do you do to cope? How do you keep your mental health intact?

So really, what’s this question about? Some would argue it is a simple question of curiosity – try going to a party as a psychologist and you will learn that you are one of those people that people love to talk to about your work out of natural curiosity or as a contrast run away from for fear of being analysed.

For the record, psychologists have their own life and identity beyond the therapy room and when out at a party, they are not out to analyse every person they come into contact with, but like you are just doing their best to have a good time, facing the same discomforts that we all face with strangers in a new context and relaxing and enjoying some time outside their work.

But is the question really – “Are we all the same? Do even psychologists struggle with mental health?

But coming back to the original question, I believe that the question goes deeper than just curiosity.  As people come to experience therapy and realise that dealing with your own mental health could have you crying one minute and laughing the next and come to better understand what it involves, really what they are seeking is the answer to this question to foster a greater sense of equality in the therapy room and to confirm their hope that perhaps we are indeed all the same and then normalising their feelings and struggles.

In my mind, the question really is translated to: Are you like me? Do you have your limits in terms of coping? Are there times when it all gets too much?  Does your mental health get affected by  your work just like mine does?

The answer is yes – despite the training that provides us with an advantage of lots of knowledge and skills and has us constantly learning new insights and coping mechanisms when it comes to mental health, we are in the end all the same at the core – we are all human and therefore capable of the full range of emotional experiences from vulnerability and fear to joy and great strength.

When asked how I cope with being a psychologist, I often say that there is always a natural balance that makes it manageable as there is in our life, so the job is not all about discomfort and pain as it brings great joy and ease when things change and get better.

I once got told off by a receptionist in one of my first jobs as a new graduate for laughing, as she had the perception that therapy should always be a “serious matter”. I stayed true to myself even at the young age of 25 and said to her that perhaps she needed to reconsider her perceptions of the therapeutic process and what is needed to stay mentally healthy as humour is a therapeutic tool and an important way of joining with a client.

Therapy is about change and transformation of mental health and improving wellbeing and relationships. It is the most rewarding feeling to have the privilege of working collaboratively with my clients, to honour  and respect their stories, their bravery, their courage, their vulnerability and to help them find strength, and hope and solutions when the path ahead looks so hard and full of pain.

However there are days when it is more challenging, days where I need to look after my mental health very carefully in order to be fully present and effective for the people I see, just like you.

The power of vulnerability in maintaining good mental health

I think being a good therapist requires us to face our own vulnerabilities and challenges head on, to face and be a witness to people in a lot of discomfort and to simply be human and real in all interactions within the therapeutic relationship. I guess in a sense we try to model what we know works for people to be more mentally healthy as much as we can, while learning from our mistakes and doing our best not to beat ourselves up for a long time when we also get it wrong.

Brenee Brown talks about the power of vulnerability and bravery in one of her books ”Daring Greatly”. If you haven’t read this yet, I would highly recommend it.  On a recent health retreat where I turned off from all communication to the outside world to honour my own needs ( this is now becoming one of my annual commitments to self care and mental health), I enjoyed reading her book and was struck by the power of her research in this field.

Here is a quote from part of her “Manifesto for the Brave and Brokenhearted”…. At a general level, the idea that we need to face up to our stories, to accept pain and to show up to what is uncomfortable is a powerful one that is so relevant to protecting mental health and I do my best to live by, even when it is immensely uncomfortable.

…..”We choose owning our stories of struggle over hiding, over hustling and pretending. When we deny our stories, they define us. When we run from struggle, we are never free, so we turn to a truth and look it in the eye. We will not be characters in our stories, not villians, not victims, not even heroes. We are the authors of our lives. We write our own daring endings. We craft love from heartbreak, compassion from shame, grace from disappointment, courage from failure. Showing up is our power, story is our way home, truth is our song. We are the brave and brokenhearted. We are rising strong……..” Brene Brown.

So as she says, the truth is powerful and transformative, even if uncomfortable, and therapy can be a part of the puzzle that helps us be authentic and to eventually come out rising strong. All the other little things that we know protect our mental health are also important in being able to keep things on track.

What mental health promises have you made this year?

There may be many of you out there frightened to speak about some of the challenges you face with your mental health or who are concerned about making promises to yourself that you may not be able to keep. I can only hope that this encourages you to take the opportunity in Mental Health week to understand that we all struggle with mental health at times. Please discuss your own mental health and encourage those you love to reflect on what you all need to do to maintain it and prevent issues from getting worse.

I often tell my clients at the end of therapy to write a list of the things they learned in the process of therapy that will support them in maintaining their mental health. This may act as a bit of a checklist and relapse prevention tool so that when things start to feel a bit shaky, you can go back to that list and remember what works for you and start to implement anything that you have stopped doing. I urge you to take on that challenge – write your own list.

So how did I do in fulfilling the promises I made to myself for Mental Health Day 2014?

A year later, I offer a brief reflection and to consider my own perceptions of success and struggle in relation to my 2014 commitments.  You can learn more about these in my previous blog that I reposted yesterday about my Mental Health Day 2014 promises.  

On balance,  I can honestly say that I am proud of how much of these commitments I have worked on but I would be lying if I was to say that it has been an easy or comfortable path.

Some of these commitments have been hard to achieve due to external circumstances, heavy work demands and significant change and rapid growth within my practice.

Sometimes it has been my own internal dialogue that has got in the way of acting on these commitments in the form of thoughts such as “it’s all too hard, “I’m too tired”, “I don’t have enough time”, “I’m nervous about this” and I have had to do my best to notice these thoughts and let them go but sometimes they have got the better of me.

Other times it has been because I have not kept these promises at the top of my mind and often simply because some were not being prioritized in the way they needed to be.

So like you, I am not perfect and I will need to keep reminding myself as I build new habits over time but mostly I see that I have in fact completed action in all of these areas, even if not always consistently. Changing habits requires mindfulness and reflection of our behaviour so we can learn and improve, but if we are generally taking action in the right direction of our values, we are going to feel more successful and less likely to experience disappointment and sadness.

Reflections on my 10 Promises for maintaining mental health and wellbeing (2014)

  1. Healthy sleep hygiene.

This has been a hard one, based on my high workload, but I have learned how much sleep I need to function well and have practiced mindfulness meditation some nights to assist in putting myself in a relaxed state of mind before bed and to let go of thoughts. My challenge now is to stick to this every night and to keep the routine consistent.

  1. Nurturing my body.

Overall, I have managed to eat reasonably well, but have recently made the commitment to almost cutting out all sugar which has been a lot easier than expected reducing cravings and ups and downs in mood.  I have learned to practice more mindful eating, increased water intake and reduced caffeine. After a struggle for sometime, I am back into exercise about 5 times a week and am feeling much better for it.

  1. Honouring my values daily.

This has been the hardest to achieve this year as I have been very busy with the greater demands in the practice and sometimes acting on all of my values has been hard to achieve…this is work in progress to get the balance right during such busy times, but as an example I’m pleased to be recently honouring my creativity in the form of a greater focus on my musical life, taking on new performing opportunities and stepping out of what is comfortable.

  1.  Fronting up to challenges.

In this area, I am pleased as I realise that I have been more willing to be vulnerable, bold and to face uncomfortable situations including managing conflict in a respectful and assertive way to be true to myself. I look forward to working on this more and managing the fear that can sometimes get in the way.

  1.  Embracing change.

Some years require us to adapt to change rapidly and this year has been one of those where despite some struggles I have got better at facing consistent change and rolling with it. There have been times when I have felt myself wish it was different and wish I could skip the uncomfortable part, but I have stuck with things and persisted  with determination, being more willing to have a lot of discomfort and learning through experience that it does indeed pass and become easier. If we can be curious about it and not judge it so much, it is so much easier to deal with. When we resist change, we create more discomfort and make it harder to see the opportunities and feel any excitement.

  1.  Cultivating greater mindfulness.

As I practice more meditation, distancing from unhelpful thoughts and apply mindfulness in more daily activities I notice a greater ease and fulfillment, but I’m aware that there are still many times when I could be a lot more mindful – once again, this is about changing habits over time and paying more attention.

  1.  Giving voice to my creativity.

I have continued on this path and increased my connection to the creative part of myself again, learning in this phase that although it requires a lot of time, sacrifice in other areas and discipline, the rewards and stress relief it gives are huge and the emotional release and self expression significant.

  1.  Setting healthy boundaries.

This is something I am getting better at each year, setting more holidays, listening to my needs in planning time off, setting clearer boundaries in relationships and in my work. When I do this and have a better balance, everything feels easier and my mental health is so much better but there are always temptations to push those boundaries, especially during busy times. I have committed to an annual 7 day health retreat to ensure that I have the opportunity to look after my body and mind and keep the balance right. This is one critical self care strategy as a health professional.

  1.  Fostering meaningful relationships.

I have learned how important meaningful relationships are and have been prepared to put investment into the people who I value and respect most, who are willing to be honest and authentic and who are genuine and upfront. I am looking forward to increasing the time spent with such people who fill me up to balance the daily stresses and who I may in return do the same for them.

  1. Seeking support as needed

I have been able to seek support from friends and professionals to work my way through challenges and have noticed the positive effects when doing this.

Over to you. What will your mental health promises be?

They are my 10 promises that I will continue to work on and are still relevant for the coming year. What are yours?

Do yourself a favour and make at least one promise to yourself.

If you feel like it, make a commitment to sharing your promise publicly. Take a moment to share it on social media here https://1010.org.au/promise/add of if you prefer just make the commitment to yourself privately .

Each and everyone of us has the capacity to connect as a community and share in this initiative, breaking down barriers and educating each other in the process.

Join me on this journey toward improved self care and mental health awareness

I encourage you to translate what is relevant to you and develop your own best practices for maintaining wellbeing. Most of all, remember that we are all fundamentally the same and we all need our own mental health practices to keep things on a relatively even keel.

If you or any loved ones are experiencing any concerns with your mental health and could benefit from assistance, at Attuned Psychology our psychologists are here to help you with the tools necessary to keep the promises that you want to make and provide a safe environment to discuss your concerns and achieve the life you want.

Alexandra Frost

Clinical Psychologist

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