By Ron Cook
March is upon us … Winter is still with us … Spring is yet a promise … and college basketball plays out its Shakespearean swan song. It is still dark in March and often cold. Shakespeare penned his own version of the dark “Ides of March” in his play Julius Caesar, in which the leader of the Roman Empire is assassinated in the very middle of this dark Month. Perhaps March might be an appropriate month to consider another part of our life-cycle we know as our mental health. What is it? What is a good mental health practice? What are the seasons of our mental health? Let’s take a look at this Month through the filter of those dark nights when many of us suffer, yet rise again from that living sadness. We will find that, “This too shall pass.”
If you are a living, breathing human being, you will endure some degrees of mental stress, strain and, sometimes, illness. How do we cope with the normal stress of daily life, which is a real thing, and maintain a good balance of our mind, body and spirit? I spent forty-five years in the classroom with emotionally disturbed and socially maladjusted students and their parents. In this, I gained a pretty good knowledge of what “not-healthy” behaviors look like. In my Master’s in Psychology studies, I decided to focus on what I’d like to call the “Psychology of the Healthy Personality.” I have gathered research on this topic and developed an inventory-study over the last ten years in this area. Let me share with you what I have found…
According to the American Psychiatric Association…
“Mental Health …
involves effective functioning in daily activities resulting in:
○ Productive activities (work, school, caregiving)
○ Healthy relationships
○ Ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity
refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders — health conditions involving:
○ Significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior
○ Distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”*
“Therein lies the rub,” as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet.
Our human make-up provides us with a set of defense mechanisms that, under normal circumstances, function to protect us from emotional and mental overload, which is the border, or safeguard, for our mental health.
So … while stress and strain may not be uncommon occurrences, we are all in this life together. We can accept that some days are harder than others. Some days are very dark. We have also known that some days are very beautiful. We have all been there. Our own mental health is an essential piece of our existence that is real and must be cherished. Mental health is an actual health condition no different than a cold, the flu, or any other medically recognized health concern.
In 2006, I came across the research of John Medina, a microbiologist, focused on brain research. He listed 12 Brain Rules in his book of the same title. These are wonderful fundamental bits of information to keep in mind. He lists the rule, then explains the scientific reason behind it … such as:
1. Exercise – the brain is a muscle! It needs a workout!
2. Wiring – every brain is wired differently!
3. Attention – the brain does not pay attention to boring things!
4. Memory – if we don’t repeat, we won’t remember!**
There are eight other interesting facts that his website presents in several entertaining ways (remember, the brain hates boring)! I have used John’s video presentation for conferences I have given for business organizations. Fun stuff!!
Moving on … I conducted my own research based on selecting, what appeared to me (a subjective choice), people that displayed healthy personality or, visa-versa, unhealthy personality traits.
● Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.
● Anticipation: Realistic planning for future discomfort.
● Humor: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about directly) that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are “skirted around” by witticism, for example self-deprecation.
● Sublimation: Transformation of unhelpful emotions or instincts into healthy actions, behaviors, or emotions, for example, playing a heavy contact sport such as football or rugby can transform aggression into a game.
● Suppression: The conscious decision to delay paying attention to a thought, emotion, or need in order to cope with the present reality; making it possible later to access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them.***
● Repression: when a feeling is hidden and forced from the consciousness to the unconscious because it is seen as socially unacceptable.
● Regression: falling back into an early state of mental/physical development seen as “less demanding and safer.”
● Projection: possessing a feeling that is deigned as socially unacceptable and instead of facing it, that feeling or “unconscious urge” is seen in the actions of other people.
● Reaction formation: acting the opposite way that the unconscious instructs a person to behave, “often exaggerated and obsessive.” For example, if a wife is infatuated with a man who is not her husband, reaction formation may cause her to – rather than cheat – become obsessed with showing her husband signs of love and affection.
● Sublimation: seen as the most acceptable of the mechanisms, an expression of anxiety in socially acceptable ways.***
What I found, statistically, was that in order to keep a balance in their lives, healthy folks were conscious of three main areas: their minds, their bodies, and their spiritual beliefs. They tended to read more and watch television less. They tended to watch what, and how much, they ate. They enjoyed exercise participating in a sport or activity that they looked forward to doing. They had civil loving relationships with their immediate family. They enjoyed their work, and felt financially okay according to their life styles. I use the Enneagram in the counseling work that I do in order to identify the three areas for the client, and work towards a satisfying balance in the way they process their lives regarding the mind, body and spirit aspects.
Our own mental health is not a panacea. Each of us will be tested emotionally in our lives. We all will ask the question, “What is life about?” If you find joy in your life … celebrate that. If you find your life to be an unhappy trial … do something to change that. Life remains full of possibilities. Today’s trials do pass. Listen to what your mind, body and spirit tell you. They have the answers …
*”What is mental illness?” – www.psychiatry.org.
**12 Brain Rules – John Medina
*** Defense Mechanisms – American Psychological Association.