I’m super jazzed to talk about meditation and mental wellness today but before we dive into that, we need to address the mental health crisis in America. So do me a favor and read the first half of this post before scrolling to the bottom!
Did you know May is Mental Health Awareness Month? While many of us are aware that mental health struggles are very common (1 in 5 people experience mental illness), can we go a step further to reduce stigma and support treatments and lifestyles that truly support mental health? Are you with me? OK, let’s go!
What is Mental Health?
Mental health encompasses our emotional and psychological well-being. It is impacted by a variety of factors including genetics, the environment in which we are raised, traumatic experiences such as abuse, how we are treated as children and much more.
Mental illnesses include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Seasonal affective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder also are mental health conditions.
Beyond diagnosable mental health disorders, day-to-day stress can impair our functioning. That’s to say, there is a spectrum of mental health and just because you may not have a diagnosed mental illness, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to take care of your mental well-being.
Mental health care should be just as important and prevalent as physical health care. What if we minded our mental health the same way we do our bodily health? Going to see your primary care physician, dentist and gynecologist are all very normal things. But what about going to see a therapist and psychiatrist? The same goes for medication. It’s very normal to take medications for a variety of physical ailments and conditions but there is a stigma surrounding mental health medication. It’s OK to take the meds you need, no matter what they’re for.
What is the State of Mental Health in America?
If you’re interested in harrowing statistics about the prevalence of mental health issues and suicide in America, you can find those here. It’s no secret that our healthcare system is broken and that people with mental health concerns are not getting the help they need. Unfortunately a lot of the burden is on the individual to find and pay for treatment, which is incredibly daunting.
While there are science-backed treatments and strategies for improving mental health, we must take into consideration the barriers to seeking and obtaining help. Did you know that on average there is an 11-year delay (yes, eleven years) between the first signs and symptoms of a mental illness and when a person actually receives treatment? Imagine if this was something like high blood pressure or cholesterol. Doctors would be all over that!
So why is mental health so stigmatized in America? Why are there so many barriers to getting help? It’s a complex situation and has a lot to do with how we treat mental illness starting from a young age. Not only are those who are affected commonly ostracized and bullied, but we have a culture of gritting our teeth and powering through struggle. We tell our children and ourselves to “toughen up” or “just get over it.” Asking for help is often seen as a sign of weakness and systems to screen for and diagnose mental health issues just aren’t as prevalent or robust as they need to be. There also are loads of myths about mental illness that continue this negative cycle.
Think about when you go to your doctor. They likely ask you if you’re having thoughts of hurting yourself. First of all, many people who have suicidal thoughts may not feel comfortable sharing that during a drill-down of must-ask questions in a sterile doctor’s office. Secondly, there is a lot more to mental health than suicidal ideation. Mental health providers such as therapists and counselors may not be covered by health insurance plans and those without health insurance may not have funds to pay out-of-pocket for therapy and treatment.
It’s important to note that the most vulnerable populations are those that already are systematically oppressed such as people of color, people of low socioeconomic status, incarcerated people and those identifying along the LGBTQ spectrum.
What Helps Improve Mental Health?
Given the barriers discussed, many of these strategies may not be accessible for folks struggling with mental illness. Regardless, it’s important to share this information for those who are able to advocate for themselves and include these habits in their routines. If you are thinking about hurting yourself, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline right now.
Each mental condition has its own treatment modalities and if you have a mental illness, you should work with a licensed care provider for individualized care.
General mental health care strategies include:
- Adequate sleep
- Fun physical movement
- Tasty nourishing food
- Spiritual connection
- Social engagement
- Psychotherapy aka talk therapy (with a licensed mental health provider)
- Drug therapy (as prescribed by psychiatrist)
- Support groups
The Benefits of Meditation
I personally love meditation as a regular way to care for myself because it encompasses so many aspects of well-being and forces you to slow down and take a break from the hustle and bustle of life. And you don’t need to sit cross-legged for an hour a day to reap the many mental, emotional and physical benefits of meditation!
Meditation at its core is simply taking a moment to be mindful. There are many kinds of meditation, including visualization, deep breathing and transcendental (where you repeat a mantra over and over to yourself). Prayer also could be considered a type of meditation.
Benefits of meditation include:
- Immune function
- Positive emotion
- Emotional intelligence and regulation
- Brain health including memory
- Feelings of loneliness
How to Get Started with Meditation
If you’ve never meditated, I understand how intimidating it can be. Try this: Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor and your hands resting in your lap. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath in, filling your belly and your chest. Now slowly release the breath. Do this three times in a row and focus on the feeling of the breath moving in and out of your body. Guess what? You just meditated!
There’s this prolific myth about meditation that in order to “do it” you have to be able to stop all your thoughts. Well that is downright impossible so don’t believe that. The goal is to be able to redirect your focus back to your breath when thoughts come up. Some people like to visualize thoughts passing by like clouds in the sky or things floating down a river. Thoughts are inevitable. Acknowledge them, resist judging them and use them as a reminder to come back to your breath.
I like to see if clients are open to beginning a meditation as a part of their self-care routines that we establish together. Some clients already have a consistent meditation practice when we first meet. Meditation is a wonderful complement to work with food and body!
Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, RYT, is a nutrition counselor and yoga teacher based in Boston who uses meditation both for herself and for her clients. “Meditation offers me the space to turn inward and notice what is going on in my body physically, energetically and emotionally. Cultivating that space helps me manage anxiety and overall feel more grounded and centered,” Kara explains. She leads clients through meditations in session if they’re open to it. “Sometimes we will use meditation at the beginning of a session if they feel particularly stressed out and need help coming into the space. Other times we will use meditation before a food exposure to help ground them and notice what is coming up. Or, we might use meditation to help clients feel embodied and notice where they are carrying physical or emotional discomfort in their bodies,” she says.
It can feel challenging to jump into meditation on your own. Luckily there are loads of free guided meditations on the internet and in apps!
Here are a few options to get you started:
There also are meditation centers and instructors in cities all across the world. So what do you think — are you open to meditation? Consider any preconceived notions you may have. If you’ve never meditated, acknowledge that you truly don’t know what meditation will be like until you try it. Close your eyes. And breathe.