Are You Ignoring Your Mental Wellness?

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Are You Ignoring Your Mental Wellness?

By Dr. Mikol S. Davis

Maybe the new year brings with it the usual resolutions to lose weight, get more exercise, and take care of other neglected things. But have you ever heard of making a resolution to take better care of your mental health?

Probably not. Like most good health we have for a time, we tend to take it for granted. But unlike a lot of our physical health, a decline in our mental wellness can be completely invisible. Caregivers may start out doing a few chores for Mom or Dad. The burden gradually increases, and we just do what needs to be done, without really thinking about it much. We feel increasing stress, but it’s not a visible thing like putting on weight in our bodies. We need not wait until we collapse to take some preventive steps to protect our mental health.

When we get physically out of shape, we can see the scale. We can tell if our clothes don’t fit so well anymore. We usually notice. But our mental wellness? What tangible things can we look at to tell if it’s sliding? Mental wellness is more subtle. The physical manifestations can look like something else. We may feel sluggish, and lacking in energy. We dismiss this as just being tired with so much to do. We may start to lose interest in things we used to enjoy doing. We might sleep a lot or not enough. Weight may fluctuate in an unusual way. We chalk it all up to being overworked, and don’t think about how the spirit may be suffering.

Difficulty concentrating, lack of energy, feeling overwhelmed, and physical symptoms such as changes in appetite, pains, indigestion and others can all be warning signs that our mental wellness is in trouble. The stresses of being a caregiver can readily diminish our mental health. It’s up to us to protect it, just as it’s up to us to maintain good health habits for our bodies.

If you go to a dentist for a checkup, the dentist may tell you that you haven’t been flossing regularly and tell you that you need to improve your dental hygiene. But when it comes to mental wellness, your friends don’t generally tell you the equivalent of what the dentist says at a checkup: you need to improve your mental hygiene. There isn’t exactly an equivalent for your mental health of “flossing regularly”, but there are some things you can do to stay mentally healthy.

Here are three good New Year’s resolutions to protect our mental wellness.

  1. Take breaks. No matter what you’re doing for those you love as a caregiver or otherwise, you owe it to your own mental wellness to be sure you have regular breaks from your responsibilities. I don’t mean once a year, either. I mean every day.
  2. Do something just for you every day. You may be indispensable, and better at the tasks at hand than anyone. But, you are not your duties. You are a separate person who needs to nurture your own spirit to stay well enough to keep being good at your job. Pick something you like and make the time to do it, no matter what, even if it’s only for 20 minutes. This does not mean eating. It means having fun in a healthy way.
  3. Exercise in a way you enjoy. Lifting your aging loved one and doing laundry don’t count on this one. I mean take a walk, do some stretching exercises, get on the floor and do some calisthenics, watch an exercise DVD, or whatever suits you, but move that body! Exercise for at least 20 minutes to dissipate stress, distract you from your chores, and calm your mind. It works, even if it’s the easiest and most gentle exercise you can manage.

In case you haven’t noticed, you can kill all three birds with one stone: take a break from those tasks that must get done, find a fun way to exercise and do this for your own, uninterrupted 20 minutes. Now that’s a New Year’s resolution you can handle.

© 2010, AgingParents.com

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