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I work in the field of mental health policy and have a side hustle in the fitness industry.  I wanted to start this blog post re-affirming that I am not a clinician, and this is not a space for clinical mental health advice.  Rather, this is a place where I hope to explore the aspects of mental health that seem to have the greatest impact daily wellness and what you can do to over come challenges you might face in daily life.

Mental health is a significant part of everyone’s life. Period.

Everyone has mental health, feelings, emotions, and ups/downs.  That is a normal part of life that we all face.  It is one of the things that makes humans both unique and fascinating creatures.  Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t understand what mental health challenges feel like when they are so severe the make daily life a constant struggle, until it happens to us or someone we love.   Then suddenly it’s like a light bulb goes off and you say, “ahh I get it now.”

Mental health challenges of all sorts have been portrayed in the mainstream media as difficult to control, fatalistic, violent, and uncontrollable, etc. etc.  When in reality, we all have experienced some sort of mental health challenge in our lives in one way or another. 

The Daily Grind:

Sadly, we all take part in the daily grind.  That’s why I named this blog the Wellness Grind, in opposition of the daily monotonous routine we often allow to negatively impact our mental health.  As I grow older, I realize that an increasing number of people I know have struggled with a mental health challenge at some point in their life (myself included) or know someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness.  Many people I know have experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide, a drug overdose, PTSD, or a combination of issues related to untreated mental illness and long-term substance abuse. 

When the grind gets too rough toxic stress overwhelms us and can cause us to be come anxious and/or depressed. And then a vicious cycle with needing to cope with the stress and the anxiety and the depression begins.

Let’s look at some data and see how Maryland stacks up to the nation and we’ll assume that MoCo with just over a million residents is representative of a typical Maryland community.

Anxiety and depression are common mental health challenges among young people, many of us know people who live with severe anxiety or depression.  Nationally, about 11.2% of 18-25 year-old people experienced a major depressive episode between 2016 and 2017 while in Maryland 12.3% for the same population.  6.7% of people over 26 years old experienced a major depressive episode nationally, and in Maryland it was almost the same.

Using these statistics that would mean in MoCo between 2016 – 2017:

  • ~ Just over  6.3 times the capacity of the Capital One Arena (or 130,000 young people 18-25 years old) experienced a major depressive episode.
  • Just under the 3.5 capacity of Capital One Arena (approximately 71,000 people over 26 years old) experienced a major depressive episode.

So how are we coping with our mental health challenges? 

Well it seems that in Maryland we might be drinking away our problems.

Now I don’t mean to throw a bunch of data at you so please forgive me if I made you look at numbers for a second.  The reality is that Maryland is on average with the nation for anxiety and depression and for illicit drug use and marijuana use.  The place where Maryland (and I would agree MoCo and the DMV in general) are higher than the nation, is in alcohol consumption.

 The data below could be applied to MoCo as representative of Maryland, shows 420,000people are estimated to be engaging in binge drinking between the ages of 18 and 25 and approximately 250,000 individuals above 26 years old.  That’s a lot of individuals healing their wounds with alcohol who could use some other options.

 National DataMD Data
Illicit drug use 18-25 y/o9.64%9.4%
Illicit drug use 26+ y/o3.31%3.32%
Marijuana use 18-25 y/o33.91%39.47%
Marijuana use 26+ y/o11.61%12.00%
Binge alcohol drinking 18-25 y/o23.69%39.58%
Binge alcohol drinking 26+ y/o9.8%  23.53%

Data source: SAMHSA NSDUH State Tables 2016-2017

This makes a ton of sense based on anecdotal stories of people I know in the area and also makes me a bit sad.  I am a huge fan of the DMV wine and beer scene. There are some quality craft brews and delicious wines coming out of local family-owned businesses which I think is a super cool thing about this area.   We also have some AMAZING all you can drink bottomless brunches with all the fixin’s.  So of course, this region indulges in the alcohol.

But to be so much higher than the nation is troublesome and makes me think we need to focus on our mental health and wellness using other coping strategies, beyond alcohol.

So in keeping with the theme of MoCo and Maryland, what can you do in this region(or in your part of the world) to improve your mental health and ultimately your wellness (without alcohol)? 

Understanding how mental health fits into your overall wellness:

The first thing you can do to start considering how your mental health impacts your wellness is be self-aware of your past experiences.

Consider how the daily struggles of life impact your feelings and emotions.  Think about a break up you might have experienced that felt like the world was over.  Or anxiety over a test and how your mind and body reacted.  Stress from work or family life can impact your mental health as well.  Even having no emotions about something you should have feelings about means something!  Self-awareness of how daily experiences have shaped your life and your mental health is key to supporting your overall wellness. 

Exercise your compassion skills when you hear about a friend, colleague, or family member who is having a mental health challenge or has a diagnosed mental illness.

In the work I’ve done supporting awareness raising efforts about mental health and how to promote positive mental health, the main thing I’ve learned is that compassion is first and foremost the way forward.  When you enter a new experience with compassion, openness, and kindness- your experience in return will be a lot richer. 

Especially when you’re talking about supporting someone who is currently experiencing a mental health challenge.  Sometimes it can be difficult learning that you have a friend or family member who lives with a mental illness or is experiencing a mental health challenge. 

When we begin to talk about mental health more openly and exercise our compassion for the life experiences of other people we can also have compassion for ourselves and practice healing our metal health in support of our wellness.  Care giving is such an important role and sometimes we forget to care for ourselves first in order to care for those around us.

Remember, the mental health of the people you interact with depends on you! (don’t let them down!)

We all have mental health.  That’s the truest statement I’ve seen on paper written about mental health.  Besides our individual mental health, we live within a series of interconnected relationships that can influence our mental health.  Our communities have experienced trauma, exercised resilience, and as a result, have a collective sense of mental health.  The nation also has mental health and has times of great sadness, anxiety, anger, and mania. 

Understanding and appreciating this point allows us to see how our mental health and how we choose to express our emotions can impact the people around us.  It is often hard to consider how your actions influences other folks on a daily basis and can be a huge exercise in compassion.  In order to support the mental health of those around you, you have to respect their right to have peace and mental wellness. 

Because we are all interconnected, when the wellness and mental health of the people around you is positive, you will have better conditions to work on your mental health and wellness.  Likewise, when are in a good place mentally, physically, and emotionally, you are better able to support and lift up those around you.

What do I do to get back to my roots?

Beyond the three points I mentioned above, I have to work on my mental health daily.  It’s part of my consistent practices of preventing myself from experiencing mental breakdowns, stress, anxiety, depression, and all sorts of bad stuff.  I have to find ways to calm down and support positive mental health in my life in order to combat high blood pressure, sleep apnea, migraines, and weight gain. 

Since I know how connected my mental health is to my body’s daily functioning, I can tell when I am starting to feel sad, angry, hurt, depressed, anxious, or some other feeling I don’t want to feel that it’s time for a mental health intervention.  Here are a few things I try regularly to intervene early when I know something isn’t feeling right and I don’t want to ignore the feeling and have it get worse.

Mental health days-

It’s important to recognize that sometimes you need a break, mentally and physically.  Taking mental health days is important and I have told bosses in the past – “hey my body needs a mental health day and I’m going to take it.”  I often can feel this need when I can’t manage my blood pressure in normal range, but I can also get a signal for a mental health day via a migraine or tension headache.  When that happens, I usually go down the list below (in order) and try to get my mental health back in shape during my mental health day.

My mental health support dog, Asha

Asha is the best companion I could ask for. Whenever I feel down, she instantly comes to me and cuddles.  (She’s usually right by my side anyway).  She makes life so much happier that usually all I need when anything is going wrong is to lay my face in her super soft fur and cry it out.  She makes a great crying pillow.  Sometimes I don’t even get that far I just lay next to her and I instantly start feeling better. 

Hiking & outside adventures-

Run Like a Girl Chakra Adventure running and yoga camp.  Costa Rica, 2014.
Run Like a Girl Adventure Camp November 2014

Outside is the place to be!  Fresh air, scenic views and physical activity outside can help clear your head, reduce repetitive thoughts and help you improve your physical wellness.  If the weather is nice, setting up a hammock on the side of a trail or near a local lake is one of the most healing and restful stress relieving activities I’ve found in Maryland.

Trail running-

When I have had a particularly bad or stressful day I always need a more vigorous workout to clear my thoughts than normal gym routine is able to provide.  So I usually head outside and combine that strategy with another favorite activity- trail running.   Nothing compares to a trail run to clear my head and get my heart pumping to the max.  Now that Asha, my trail doggie, is by my side the runs can be faster and more intense than I plan for but usually they’re the best way to exhaust my brain and body. 

Yoga & Pilates-

Run Like a Girl /Chakra Eco Lodge Running & Yoga Trip, Costa Rica 2014
Run Like a Girl /Chakra Eco Lodge Running & Yoga Trip, Costa Rica 2014

Beyond my other workout addictions, yoga and Pilates are my go-to stress relieving group classes.  I love feeling challenged and exploring new ways to stretch and relieve tension in the places I carry the most stress-related tightness: my mid-back and hips.   When I get back from any outside adventures or workouts I usually hit my mat in my home yoga studio/office and let any tension I’m still carrying melt away.  Luckily MoCo has so many good options, more reviews on local yoga and Pilates adventures soon!

Massages-

I love a good massage but I’m also not one to pay a ton of money for a massage.  I know I should pay more and get them more often.  I also have discovered that there are a lot of great local massage places that specialize in clothed reflexology massages focused on pressure points throughout your body and with warm foot baths.  I love the Nirvana chain in Rockville, MD, but there are a ton around.  If you are in a pinch, and need a great relaxing experience pronto, a $50ish massage for 45 minutes is a great deal. 

Foam rolling, stretching, and pressure point torture devices-

New Yoga strap  & mat, extra firm foam roller, The Stick, Lather-Muscle Ease Gel, & Addaday Roller
New Yoga strap & mat, extra firm foam roller, The Stick, Lather-Muscle Ease Gel, & Addaday Roller

I’ve long been a fan of torturing your body by yourself when you feel like stress and tension are building up and making you ache all over.  Back aches, leg cramps, and hip tightness are constant reminders that I carry a lot of stress from my physical activity and my daily life in my muscles.  I spend about 20-30 minutes foam rolling stretching (beyond yoga classes) and rolling out pressure points on my body about 3-4 days a week.  I should do more, but I don’t always remember before bed to fit in one good foam rolling session.  Here are a few foam rolling tips I like and also my favorite torture stick for digging in the calves and legs after a trail-run or monster spin class.

Meditation/ deep breathing-

I have tried meditation and deep breathing among other mindfulness practices for a few years.  I can say that this is probably the most challenging of my wellness activities.  I’ve tried group meditation, meditation with your dog, and self-guided meditation.  So far, my biggest success has been with meditation podcasts that I’ve downloaded on my iPhone and do before I go to sleep.  It helps me relax, stop thinking about the things that happened during the day that I’m not happy about, and clear my mind so I can get a restful night’s sleep. 

Here are a few meditation podcasts and apps I like:

Travel-

Sitting on the edge of a castle in Edinburgh, Scotland 2007
Sitting on the edge of a castle in Edinburgh, Scotland 2007

I try to get out of the U.S. at least once a year for my mental health.  I think that growth and new experiences fuels ingenuity and creativity to move your life forward in a positive way.  When you travel and meet new people, exchange ideas, and see other cultures you push your mental limits on a daily basis to learn new things and see new perspectives. This can help you learn more about what situations you are comfortable in, how to problem solve on the go, and how to not stress small things and small interactions.  The negative side about travel is it can create some stress and anxiety which savvy travelers anticipate and navigate as it comes. Whenever I need a break to check-in with myself I schedule a weekend trip or a short get-away in between my yearly international travel to help mere set my wellness work and focus on building positive mental health.

Discovering my roots in Tulum, Mexico 2009
Discovering my roots in Tulum, Mexico 2009

Craft beer-

Old Trade Brewery & Cidery has some gorgeous views!  Brandy Station, VA 2018
Old Trade Brewery & Cidery has some gorgeous views! Brandy Station, VA 2018

Hey how did that get in the list? I thought beer was bad!  Well in reality I love craft beer and I recognize that binge drinking is bad but a responsible adult beverage now and again with your friends to chat and decompress is OK.   As an adult, the important part of that is knowing your limits and not trying to go to the limit on purpose.  Enjoying the taste of the beverage you are drinking alternately with a glass of water and eating good food can actually be a nice mental heath break.

Latest wellness interests:

Lately I’ve added a few new experimental items to my list of wellness tools.

Essential oils-

It turns out I’ve had a lot of essential oils thrown around the house for various uses but haven’t fully explored all the uses for each one.  I regularly use tea tree oil, eucalyptus, lavender, and vanilla in my diffuser. But I haven’t used any in a carrier oil externally on my body so that’s been a new (and somewhat funny) experience. 

More HITT Workouts-

Natasha setting up to kick my butt.
Natasha setting up to kick my butt.

I love doing yoga at home in my home office/yoga studio/second bedroom.  I recently invested in a new mat, strap and block for continued motivation.  Through a friend’s wife I started practicing using Ali Kamanova’s HITT yoga workouts at home.  This has been an awesome alternative for those cold days when making it to an actual studio or class doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort. I’ve also been sick recently and needed a more relaxing speed of yoga so for that I turned to – Yoga with Adrienne.  The crow pose prep video is one of my favorites!! I’m still working at it! 

I started a new 1/2 hour HITT workout with a trainer, Natasha at my gym and also have been doing a 1/2 hour HITT circuit once a week.  Starting to see lots of muscle development and strength!

Lavender field yoga near Deep Creek Lake in Maryland.
Lavender field yoga near Deep Creek Lake in Maryland.

 Homemade tea recipes and kambucha-

I’ve been looking into brewing my own kambucha to take my tea obsession to the next level.  I have most of the perfect conditions except warm-ish space to let it brew.  More to come on that adventure soon.

I did recently make my own yogi tea using this recipe and it came out pretty bitter and strong.  Next time I’ll likely cut back the black tea and add more ginger because I love ginger.

Mental Health = Wellness

I’ll close this blog post by saying that everyone needs their own recipe for feeling better immediately and long term.  It’s important when you’re entering stressful situations to remember to breathe and to know that there are sometimes when you need to just walk away for your own mental health and wellness.  In those crisis times it’s important to know what you are feeling and how to immediately improve the situation.

On the long term front, it’s important to have a game plan and set aside time where you work on your wellness every day, week, month, year.  What would it look like in your life if you dedicated one hour per week, four hours per month, 48 hours (just 2 days!) per year to intentionally work on your wellness?

What kinds of outcomes would you want to see in your life as a result of the wellness work you put in?  How much do you think your mental health could improve if you intentionally set aside time to do something positive for your mental wellness?

What kind of new wellness routine can you start today?


I’m O.K. Workout

Check out the workout that inspired this post! The I’m O.K. indoor cycle workout and playlist are available now!