• Julia

Positive Psychology - How to prevent mental health illnesses

Updated: May 28, 2020

Have you ever felt sick and googled your symptoms? Most likely you quickly reached the conclusion that you definitely have the plague - or some other kind of extremely unlikely disease. Studying psychology is a little bit like that. With every second disease, the symptoms feel all-too-relatable. I am very lucky, however, that in my life (so far) I have never been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Looking at all the "risk-factors", however - I could definitely have. Everyone could have! In fact, I am fairly certain that I have displayed certain behaviors (and still do) that could have developed (and could still develop) into a severe condition. (Read about me struggling with eating and body image here).

"Everyone could develop a mental health disorder"

I was bullied as a kid but am able to interact socially fairly well. I am a divorce-kid and I definitely have attachment and commitment issues, but not abnormally. I feel best when I can control and organize everything but it's not clinical... I had an incredible support system growing up ranging from clubs, choir, older students, teachers, friends and family members. I was lucky enough to be born in a family that was financially well-off and drugs were not in the picture.

Why was I so lucky when others were not?

And how can we increase the number of people who can say that?

Whether you are studying psychology or not it probably doesn't come as a surprise to you that the mind is complex and no single situation undoubtedly results in a disease. I am certain you have heard that there are some genes involved in various mental health diseases. Often, however, they are involved as predispositions: they increase the likelihood of you developing a certain illness but only if triggered e.g by stressful life events.

We all know, for example, that sexual abuse and other traumatic (childhood) experiences significantly increase the risk of developing a mental health disorder - with or without genetic predispositions.

Let's say that 42% of the population develops Disease X after being bullied in school.

But then again, there are also the 58% who did NOT develop Disease X.

So how can we get more people into that 58 % category?

That's what Positive Psychology is all about! In honor of Positive Psychology, I, therefore, want to talk about these protective factors that make people be the 58% who DON'T develop Disease X vs the 42% who do.

Before we begin I want to say that I am NOT advocating for the idea that developing a mental health disorder is the person's fault. (In fact, I argue the opposite). What I am saying is that every single one of us can play a role in the mental health of our peers, friends and ourselves. Because that's what Generation Impact is all about: we have a voice!

1. Be there for each other.

Think about a really challenging time in your life that you were able to get through: who was there for you? Who distracted you? Who made you laugh? Who gave you hugs?

Try to be that person for others! Not generally: but today, right now, after you finish reading this post!

That person that always sits by themselves? Ask them to join you or sit with them for a while. That friend who told you they were having a hard time - check in on them, do they feel better now? If not: ask how you can help.

Care for one another! Many, many studies show how important a supportive social environment can act as a moderating factor in victims of abuse, neglect, and trauma.

Play your part by offering support "Hey, you know that I am always here for you okay. How can I support you better?". Message people small motivational-care messages (my all-time favorite: it takes you 2min to send that message but results in so much joy and love).

Play your part by seeking help. Don't be a hero. Are you having a hard time? There is no shame in seeing a therapist, counselor or asking a friend for advice or comfort.

2. Don't judge

There are many mental health disorders who may seem "strange" or "weird". Consider yourself lucky you are not familiar with them! Don't shut people down by claiming they "seek attention" or "are overreacting". That will only worsen their symptoms and doesn't help anybody.

And moreover: always consider the biological and social context. I myself have to admit that I have always held a certain level of stigma toward people who abuse drugs. I just didn't get it: why didn't they just stop. The truth is: their biology (the mesolimbocortical system of their dopaminergic system) may make it a lot harder to stop than it is for others. And there are social factors that significantly magnify the challenges associated with quitting.

3. Educate yourself and fight stigma.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there e.g that people with mental health disorders are dangerous (not true), that people who have mental health diseases are just "weak" and other myths - many more specific to different disorders. In the age of the internet with youtube and wikipedia you really have no excuse not to know better - and help spread the knowledge.

Imagine a world in which everyone could just be accepted and supported instead of judged and isolated!

4. Watch your language.

It's not "the schizophrenic". It is "the unique individual with hopes and dreams who also suffers from schizophrenia".

You are not "cold-bacteria-host-Nr-23917", so the same applies to mental health as for physical health.

5. Be kind to yourself

Moving away from the social factors to the more cognitive (thinking) factors: we all have irrational thoughts sometimes: "I am such a failure", "I will never get this done" etc. The important part is to catch ourselves and not believe them. And if that's really hard? Seek support. There is no shame in asking for help and there are many great treatments out there that can help you control your thoughts, change your emotions and improve your life and happiness.

6. Use wellbeing and self-care techniques

For those of you who haven't seen it: earlier this week I gave a webinar on "Self-care in leadership positions" talking about a great variety of skills you can use to lower your stress levels, take care of yourself IN ORDER to gain the energy you need to make the world a better place. Don't have time to watch it? (If you are very stressed, maybe you should watch it even more ;) but:

Here's are the slides from the recording:

Especially young people continuously underestimate the negative effects sleep deprivation has on them. The best thing you can do? Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day! (Webinar at 17:06 min or click here)

A little bit of neuroscience fun facts for you: you are probably aware that we have a nervous system in our body that transmits information through the body. This nervous system includes the Sympathetic Nervous System, which is responsible for preparing your body for "fight or flight" so it increases your heart rate etc. When you are stressed the sympathetic nervous system is ruling your body. The easiest way to "turn it off" activate your Parasympathetic nervous system by breathing in deeply and then slowly breathing out, because breathing out engages your Parasympathetic Nervous System. Yeyy science.

(Webinar 19:47 min or click here)

You have probably read about the amazing benefits of meditation. If that made you (like me) curious, I recommend finding online guided meditations or join a meditation retreat. There are many free apps available too. If you have ever meditated you may also have noticed that your mind starts wondering very quickly. And that’s okay. Like the picture I have in the background here, we think of meditation as so easy: calm, relaxing and with a completely quiet mind. Often meditation, however, feels a little more like the picture on the upper right: trying to get your brain under control. And that's okay! That's how it should be: continuously catching your strayed thoughts and then bringing your focus back to the breath.

"Often meditation feels more like

trying to get your brain under control"

But that doesn’t mean meditation is aggressive! Don't get anxious about not being able to meditate (trust me, I have been there) Sit down, breathe out, and when a thought comes just look at it and say: not right now. If you are a "fidgety sceptic", you may want to consider checking out Dan Harris' book: "Meditation for Fidgety Sceptics", it's a very funny but very comprehensive guide to meditation. Want to dive much deeper into the spiritual literature: consider reading the Bhagavad Gita, the foundation text of Yoga and Meditation. I have met several people who say that this book changed their lives.

(Webinar 21:15min or click here)

In his book "Give and Take", Adam Grant talks about "Givers", "Takers" and "Matchers", according to people's generosity. The Givers, which I assume you are part of, he further divides into "Selfless Givers", whose giving gets in the way of their own health by burning them out and preventing them from being successful because they are so busy helping others that they don't get their own work done. Then there are "Otherish Givers", who are able to maximize their giving AND their own success because they ALSO take care of themselves!

(Webinar 12:37min or click here)

If meditation freaks you out because you have to sit still for several minutes, maybe you should try Yoga! It's a great combination of exercise, mindfulness, and breathing (and spirituality, if you want). Yoga is a lot about finding the right teacher. When I started doing Yoga I really didn't understand the hype - but then I took yoga classes with another teacher and it clicked - now I love it!

(Webinar 23:36 min or click here)

There is actually really, really interesting research on the effect of nature on our behavior. Curious? Check out the Hidden Brain Episode: Our Better Nature.

For the sake of self-care, all you should know is that just taking a couple of minutes every day and immersing yourself in nature can significantly improve your health and happiness!

(Webinar 25:06 min or click here)

Okay, so this gets a little further into Psychology. Think about when you a time when you were anxious - what happened in your body? Your heart raced, maybe your palms were sweaty, your cheeks maybe got a little red.

Now what happens in your body when you get excited? Your heart starts racing, maybe your palms get a little sweaty, your cheeks may get a little red...

Notice something? The only difference between the two emotions is how we interpret them! Don't believe me? Watch this TED talk.

(Webinar 27:07 min or click here)

One more Psychology-term for you: Cognitive Distortions are thoughts that really don't make sense. They are irrational and only make us anxious - they are not realistic. One example is Personalizing, e.g when you think that when a project failed it is all your fault, failing to consider that there might have been other factors involved as well. Another example is Overgeneralizing, in which you draw a very general conclusion from one tiny event e.g "I have failed this test = I am never going to graduate and be homeless". I am sure everyone has done that, but let's be real here: that's a pretty big jump. The last example I mentioned in the webinar was Dichotomous Thinking, only seeing things in black and white. Have you ever thought of the "best" and "worst" case scenario? The outcome was probably in the middle. Next time you think of the best and worst case, also consider the most realistic case!

(Webinar 29:15 or click here)

I don't think I need to elaborate on that. Try to laugh! And laugh about what makes you sad, because you have that power to take control of your story.

Want to learn about how people with mental health disorders can use Stand Up Comedy as a form of therapy? Check out this podcast: You've gotta laugh (ABC).

(Webinar 32:09 min or click here)

This also doesn't surprise anyone :) Seek connectivity! Especially in today's cell-phone dominated world. Put it away. (Just the presence of a cell phone significantly reduces empathy in a conversation). Be in the moment. Listen and care deeply.

Fun fact: exercising for 20 min a day has a very similar effect on you as taking pills against depression. There is now also more and more research on how our diet influences our mood and how we can even treat depression by changing what we eat!

The truth is, we all know this but it's hard to stick to our goals.

One trick I learned is to have a weekly "Cheat-Day" - one day in the week where you can eat and do whatever you want. It helps you relax your "discipline muscles" and makes you more likely to continue with your efforts. And what research finds? One day actually doesn't make a big difference.

(Webinar 35:05 min or click here)

Anyone in the Generation Impact knows this: helping others makes you happy. In fact, in one study participants were given five dollars which they could either spend on themselves or others. Guess who was happier the day after? The people who spent it on others.

But then remember not to exaggerate it - also take care of yourself and "chunk your giving". Don't be available to everyone all the time, but set a specific time frame in which you put your efforts into making the world a better place. And then take care of other things.

(Webinar 38:56 min or click here)

The writing down three things you are grateful for every evening actually has been shown to significantly improve happiness very quickly - try it out. If you want to go one step further: write people thank you-messages via Facebook, Instagram, In-Person. A perfect combination between gratefulness and making other's happy and feel appreciated.

(Webinar 40:57 min or click here)

Last but not least: spirituality and religion is a place in which many people find support against stressful and traumatic experiences. For example, religious people are less likely to develop addictions! This is because most religions combine many of the elements mentioned before: community, connectedness, time for reflection, meditation, service to others, music etc. Did you know that when you sing with other people your heart rates synchronize?

Interested in more out-of-th-box "creative" self-care practices like "chocolate meditation"?

Click here.

I am going to leave you with this list, hoping that one or two things I said help make your lives a little happier and a little less stress - and hopefully a little less likely to break down.

And if you do - please reach out. I am always here for you.

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